June 07, 2011

BOOKS: The Tragedy of Arthur, Arthur Phillips (2011)

You can't keep your Arthurs straight without a scorecard in Arthur Phillips's novel The Tragedy of Arthur, so here's the lineup:

There's Arthur Phillips (let's call him "Phillips"), the novelist who wrote the book. There's Arthur Phillips ("Arthur"), the protagonist of the novel, who is Phillips in the same way that actors occasionally play "themselves" in TV or movies. There's Arthur's father ("Dad"), who is also named Arthur Phillips. And there's King Arthur ("KA"), the subject of the play The Tragedy of Arthur which is at the center of the novel The Tragedy of Arthur. Confused yet?

Phillips's novel takes the form of Arthur's 250-page introduction to the play, which his publisher, Random House, is presenting as a newly discovered play by Shakespeare. In his introduction, Arthur explains how his father came to have possession of the play, or at least how Dad says he came into it. Dad's been a con man and a forger for as long as Arthur can remember, and was in prison for much of Arthur's childhood. Arthur is therefore convinced (and not unreasonably) that the play is a fraud, and is writing the introduction only because he's legally obliged to do so (and Random is obliged to publish whatever introduction he gives them). He's using the introduction as an attempt to defend his own moral integrity.

Arthur's twin sister, Dana, on the other hand, believes that the play is real, but her relationship with Dad has always been closer than Arthur's, and Shakespeare has been a particular point of bonding for them.

As Phillips presents the story, there is certainly room for ambiguity. Arthur finds the parallels between his own family's experience and the KA story as presented in the play to be too close to be mere coincidence; on the other hand, how could a small-time forger who can't even forge lottery tickets without getting caught ever forge a 17th-century Shakespeare folio well enough to convince all of the experts?

Phillips has actually gone to the bother of writing the "Shakespeare" play -- full-length, five acts, 100 pages long -- that is the novel's bone of contention. Is the imitation any good? Well, it's as good as it can be, I suppose, given that it has to walk the fine line between being possibly convincing as the real thing and possibly the fraudulent work of a non-scholar. I'm not sure who Phillips thinks will enjoy the play, though. If you're a Shakespeare devotee, you're going to be appalled by reading an imitation; if you don't enjoy reading real Shakespeare, why would you want to slog through 100 pages of fake?

And I think the novel stands on its own quite well, even if you choose not to read the play. It's an entertaining story of a man so deeply affected by his father's constant scheming that he's unable to put much trust in anyone or anything, and while there's certainly tragedy to spare in the end (of both novel and play), it's entirely up for grabs which Arthur's tragedy you may think you're reading.

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