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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Review: The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips

Experimental novels often flounder within their own conceit (can you say "House of Leaves"), "The Tragedy of Arthur" by Arthur Phillips is not one of those novels. It triumphs over it, sucks you into it, and almost has you believing that Phillips' father either wrote or found a Shakespearean play. I say almost in my case, but I've seen a few other reviewers who are questioning the veracity of this tale. The web has been conveniently wiped clean of Phillips' familial history, but I've read him before and I know how fantastically unreliable his narrators can be.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, you haven't even been properly introduced yet. Arthur Phillips' new novel "The Tragedy of Arthur" is prefaced by a note from the Editors of his publisher, Random House, stating that what you have in your hand is a copy of a lost (and previously unheard of) play by one William Shakespeare (maybe you've heard of him?) titled "The Most Excellent and Tragical Historie of Arthur, King of Britain." The Editors go on to tell you to dive into the play and skip the 250+ introduction by the guy, Arthur Phillips, who delivered it to them. The first line of the introduction makes it obvious why they may suggest this particular reading route.

Phillips begins with, "I have never much liked Shakespeare." Only then to delve into a memoir, not at all a proper introduction to a newly discovered Shakespeare play. Phillips goes through the whole memoir kit and caboodle (the difficult childhood, the deadbeat dad); all leading up to this - his dad was a forger. A man who believes that forged documents and faked crop circles are a kind of modern magic. Trickery and sorcery as one, he practices what he sees as victimless crimes in order to make the world more interesting.

You may find yourself asking why this is relevant. Well, Phillips' father is the one who gave him "The Tragedy of Arthur" and this introduction cum memoir is his way of hashing out for himself and you, the reader, rather or not it is real. Of course, "once you know it isn't Shakespeare, none of it sounds like Shakespeare" but if it sounds enough like Shakespeare maybe we could make-believe that it is. Isn't that a bit of magic in our postmodern world?

I loved this novel. It's the type of smart-funny book that you don't read too often. As I said in the beginning, it fully owns its conceit. Within the memoir/introduction Phillips takes shots at academics, Anti-Stratfordians, and memoirists (he even name checks James Frey). The faux memoir goes on effortlessly. So much so that even though a lot of it is unfortunate or even horrible, you kinda want to believe it's true.

Then there is the Shakespeare stuff. Obviously this guy wrote a Shakespeare play. In iambic pentameter. Seriously. That alone is impressive. The play is good too, more impressive. Some lines are really great as is this couplet that caught my attention, "And so do kingdoms fall by vice's art/ When righteous men in conscience stand apart." Phillips' mentions these particular lines in the introduction, I think he was quite impressed by them himself.

Beyond the play itself I really enjoyed Phillips's discussion of Shakespeare. He goes from being bored by the Bards' worshipers to bemused by his detractors and eventually, with the upcoming publication of the play, surrounded by groups of Shakespearologists. But I think more than the idea of Shakespeare, the idea behind the novel pertains to experiencing something new, living some of that magic Phillips' father tried to create. He describes this best when explaining how his twin sister felt upon receiving a copy of the play from their father after having completed Shakespeare's body of work:
She had already, at that young age, experienced something coming to an end, a love affair's first flush, and now, to discover that there was still (possibly) one left: she was torn between wanting to stay up all night reading it and rationing her last virgin pleasure over weeks or months.
Arthur Phillips has come away from all this having written a fantastic tragi-comic novel, a faux memoir, and a freaking Shakespeare play (alliteration unintended but remaining unchanged). You have to appreciate that. Definitely a good read.

Advance Reading Copy reviewed from Random House


  1. I'm a fan of The Egyptologist, and I liked Nabokov's Pale Fire (with a similar structure), but I'm struggling with this novel. My interpretation of the preface is that I should read the play first, but I realize that's sort of tongue-in-cheek, so I'm actually reading a few scenes and then going back to the introduction. I'm admiring it but not really enjoying it.

  2. Patti, it's great getting different perspectives of this novel. Everyone seems to take it in differently. I definitely agree with you that what Phillips is attempting is admirable, but I think it is up to each reader to decide whether or not he achieves it.

  3. Dazzling. Genius. Yes, all that. But also wildly imaginative, quirky, laugh out loud funny, absurd, and all the things I want in a novel novel written like an autobiographical introduction to a play. The last great reads for me were from Jennifer Egan, Vendela Vida, Jonathan Franzen (intellectually but not passionately), and David Benioff. "The Tragedy of Arthur" is a triumph.
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