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Review: The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips

Reviewed by Gwenda Bond 

Paul Auster, David Foster Wallace, Steve Erickson, and, lately, Jeff Ford—what do they share in common? Maybe more than this, but all of them—and many more besides—have used the technique of including a fictionalized version of the author as narrator or primary character. In fact, this is one technique—sometimes called self-insertion or auto-fiction—that never goes out of style. Many authors seem compelled to tell stories that are not their own, by way of characters that both are and aren’t themselves. It’s high stakes poker, where self is on the line. Failing to pull off a novel successfully is one thing (and something most writers will experience in their careers), but to fail to pull off a novel about yourself, even if it isn’t really you? Scary stuff that strikes at the heart of identity and authorship. 

And now one of today’s most intriguing novelists, Arthur Phillips, has entered the game with The Tragedy of Arthur. Far from playing it safe, Phillips has constructed nothing less than an artifact about the curious nature of truth. This sharp, clever dazzler of a novel takes its name from a previously unknown Shakespeare play, being published by Random House, after having been brought forth by one Arthur Phillips, bestselling author. As part of his contract, Phillips is to write an introduction to the newly-authenticated text, which the publisher cannot alter. This introduction is a false memoir, drawing from elements of Phillips’ real life, but also inventing a complicated family saga where Phillips’ con man father—also an Arthur Phillips, and the source of the play—bonds with the narrator’s twin sister, Dana, over their shared love of Shakespeare, a love Phillips is then left outside. The book begins, “I have never much liked Shakespeare,” and scholars everywhere bristle. 

Over the course of the novel, Phillips believes the play is genuine then that it isn’t (tragically), exchanges heated emails with his real-life editor and agent (hilariously), and pokes at the Shakespeare myth-making industry (pointedly), all while giving us an absorbing, funny, sentimental fake family portrait. And did I mention there’s a complete, annotated “Shakespeare” play following the introductory novel? It’s a pretty decent facsimile, too, which comes as no surprise, since (the real) Arthur Phillips apparently had scholar James Shapiro—and maybe others—on standby to take apart draft after draft. 

In short, Phillips has taken on not just self, but Shakespeare; the very definition of go big or go home. He is not afraid to raise questions about why Shakespeare has been so influential in our culture and why he has been elevated above all other writers. Is it just because more of his work survived? The authentication process for the play manages to satirize the world of academic specialization and computer programs that analyze the writer of a text, but without feeling especially unkind to the people who make their living this way. And, the ultimate question becomes, if the play gives the buzz of Shakespeare, does it matter if he wrote it? The equation of value judgments about art being in the eye of the beholder as akin to a good con is almost as common as author as character—on film, see Orson Welles’ F is for Fake or Banky’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, or more relevantly here, read Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire—but, still, Phillips manages to add to these arguments, rather than just echo them. 

Phillips’ previous novels have demonstrated his ability to identify a certain milieu or type of story, deconstruct it, then put it back together again in a satisfying way. The most successful of these (for me), The Egyptologist, set an archeological murder mystery in 1920s Egypt, but Prague, an expatriate coming of adulthood tale, Angelica, a Victorian ghost story, and The Song is You, a midlife crisis as musical obsession story, are all worthy examples. Questions of identity and authenticity reflect through many of these earlier novels as well, so perhaps it’s no surprise that The Tragedy of Arthur is Phillips’ most challenging work yet. But, best of all, it also shows something else that his other novels have. Phillips’ work leaves no doubt that it’s possible to work in these heady cerebral waters without drowning in them. It’s possible to ask (and maybe answer) large questions in an intricate way, while still having fun. And that’s the ultimate truth about Arthur: It’s no tragedy.

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