CHEOPS

A Cupboard for the Sun

By Paul West

New Directions. 263 pp. $25.95

The 22nd book of fiction by the merrily eclectic Paul West examines, with self-conscious flair, the very art and purpose of the historical novel. Cheops, pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty of ancient Egypt, was a vain tyrant, cruel to his family, indifferent to the sufferings of the thousands he pressed into forced labor to gratify his desire to build monuments to himself. He has escaped oblivion, 46 centuries later, on two accounts: first, as an infamous subject of the writings of Herodotus, the immortal Greek historian and, some might say (given his scant available sources), proto-historical-novelist; and second, as the architect of the Great Pyramid at Giza, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, which was the vision Cheops enslaved his subjects to realize.

West's vision -- so fantastic as to moot any questions of historical fealty -- unites those two legacies on the same stage. He imagines Herodotus himself transported back in time to ancient Egypt (courtesy of Osiris, God of the Nile), to witness firsthand for his own literary purposes the weeks and months preceding Cheops's death. Even this magical you-are-there privilege, though, doesn't insure that Herodotus, or any writer, will always hew to the facts, as Cheops is painfully aware: "It is not how things are that impresses him, but how they affect his mind and heart, what he makes of them; and this leads him into wild conjectures, voluptuous garblings. . . . Tell him a bogus legend and he at once believes it, eager to know how some willing hearer would regard it; and this is how he compiles his 'tapestry of facts,' as he calls them."

Blind, ill, obsessed with making a beautiful death commensurate with the majesty and outsized power of his life, Cheops is largely oblivious to the earthly intrigue that surrounds his family and the question of his succession. Even the murder of his son leaves him seemingly untroubled, though the theft of his late mother's remains from inside the pyramid does briefly claim his outraged attention. His biography, in Osiris's words, "is a study in swank, but of that notion raised to unthinkable heights, entailing no doubt the glad extinction of millions, but, more importantly, the gigantic self-promotion of the human brain -- as if to prove that, if only you push your obsession hard enough, you will have your way."

Cheops conforms to Milan Kundera's definition of the novel as "a meditation on existence as seen through the medium of imaginary characters"; another way to say this is to acknowledge that Cheops is a novel in which not much happens. It's a talky book ("associative meander" is Osiris's apposite phrase), and not unintentionally so, for, in a short author's note, West suggests that much of its first-person narration is "intended to be declaimed." Thus even the various deaths and machinations are described rather than dramatized; the book contains nothing of any length that resembles an actual scene. To criticize it on those terms, which are not West's, would be unfair; still, the book's ruminative, near-static pacing is something less patient readers may be profitably warned away from.

West seems to see himself -- in a playful spirit, to be sure -- both as a Herodotus figure, transported back in time to bring history to authoritative life (many of his books, from The Women of Whitechapel to Portable People, have cast their gaze similarly backward), and as Osiris, uniquely capable of striding between and even of superimposing the centuries upon one another; thus, in one long and inspiredly whimsical episode, the river-god more or less pipes into the flabbergasted Cheops's head the undreamed-of music of the 20th-century composer Frederick Delius.

As for any authorial identification with Cheops himself -- casting a glance back over the sum of his creations, meditating on how to meet most heroically his impending end -- that possibility is foreclosed in the novel's very last paragraph, which astonishingly hypothesizes Cheops's reincarnation as the author of one of recent history's most infamous acts, in which innocents were taken to their deaths with an indifference that would have done a pharaoh proud. It's quite a flourish, from a technical point of view; from a moral perspective, one is bound to say that it seems cheaper the more one thinks about it. But it's a tacked-on ending in any event, hardly integral to the atmosphere of philosophic fancy that precedes it.

Cheops is an unhurried, demanding novel with virtually no chance of acquiring a wide readership; and that, in the end, is the most engaging thing about it. To watch a novelist in late career take such evident, undimmed, essentially private pleasure in his material, with no regard -- neither anxious nor embittered nor hopeful nor nose-thumbing -- for the public's broader appetites, is a rare and exemplary thing. West's fictional engagement with ancient history has produced a joyfully arcane meditation on what must pass from the Earth -- namely us -- and on the creative endeavor that, whatever its provenance, has at least the potential to endure. *

Jonathan Dee is the author, most recently, of the novel "Palladio."