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The Tragedy of Arthur


The Tragedy of Arthur

Reading Arthur Phillips's THE TRAGEDY OF ARTHUR is like trying to decipher a code. Or, maybe more accurately, trying to solve one of those maddening tavern puzzles that require you to shift your existing mindset entirely in order to grasp the unexpected solution.

Phillips, who has made a name for himself (at least in critical circles) for being both a brilliantly inventive novelist and an even more brilliant mimic, comes into his own in THE TRAGEDY OF ARTHUR, a novel that blends the genres of memoir and fiction even as it generates a reasonable imitation of a Shakespearean tragedy.

The conceit (broadly speaking) is this: Arthur Phillips (the novelist) has been asked to write an introduction to Shakespeare's long-lost play, brought to the light of day --- and potential scholarship --- by Phillips's own family. The introduction, however, soon takes on a life of its own, as what begins as an academic exercise soon delves deeply into (ostensibly) Phillips's own family history, which includes his experience of growing up with a Shakespeare-loving twin sister named Dana, a long-suffering mother, and a father whose own artistic aspirations have long since been subsumed under crimes of forgery, trespassing, and more.

"I admit that this seems a long way from an Introduction to a newly discovered Shakespeare play," Phillips writes. "This essay is fast becoming an example of that most dismal genre, the memoir. All I can say is that the truth of the play requires understanding the truth of my life."

Of course, this isn't really a memoir, but Phillips keeps readers guessing --- not only about his own family origins but also concerning the origins of Shakespeare's plays. Dana, who becomes a committed "anti-Stratfordian" after one too many paternal betrayals, comes up with an explanation for the plays' authorship(s) that's just wacky enough to seem kind of believable.

But what of the play itself? Is it an elaborate forgery? Or a wayward father's misbegotten gift to his children? Is it genius, or merely pastiche? Readers will ask themselves these questions as Arthur Phillips (the author) moves toward and away from Arthur Phillips (the character) and all those who surround him.

Along the way, the novel delves into countless of Shakespeare's own themes and concerns, explored both obviously and obliquely. Phillips may not be Shakespeare's biggest fan --- his disdain for the Bard, or at least for the Bard's unexamined reputation, is a running theme throughout the book --- but he certainly is well-versed in Shakespeare, both in his ability to construct a remarkably credible Renaissance tragedy and in his ability to bring Shakespeare's world to bear on contemporary tragedies of all sorts and sizes. Playful, maddening, complicated and elusive, THE TRAGEDY OF ARTHUR cements Arthur Phillips's reputation as a novelist who's both staggeringly well-read and brilliantly inventive.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on May 2, 2011

The Tragedy of Arthur
by Arthur Phillips

  • Publication Date: April 19, 2011
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 1400066476
  • ISBN-13: 9781400066476