Arthur Phillips’s new novel The Tragedy of Arthur was great fun. I’ve seen comparisons of this book to Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and the comparison works to a certain extent — they have a similar structure, both made up of a primary text and a commentary on that text — but it’s a rather unfortunate comparison for Phillips’s sake because who can compare to the great Nabokov? This book doesn’t have the insane brilliance of Pale Fire, but there’s a charm and wit to it that are appealing.
The text in Phillips’s case is a “newly discovered” long-lost Shakespeare play, printed in its entirety in the back of the book. The commentary takes the form of a memoir and fills up the first 250 or so pages. This commentary/memoir was supposed to be a standard critical introduction, but the guy who owns the manuscript, a character named Arthur Phillips, agreed to publish the introduction himself and decided to do it exactly as he wanted. It takes the unusual form of a long self-justification including his entire life story and an argument about the play’s authenticity. This question of authenticity is at the heart of the book, and it’s a particularly vexed question because the man who “discovered” the play, Arthur Phillips’s father, is a notorious con man who spent much of his adult life in jail for various forgeries (another book hovering in the background is William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, which is also about artistic forgeries and a difficult father/son relationship).
In this memoir of sorts — which describes a life at least superficially resembling the real Arthur Phillips’s life, both people having published the same novels and lived in at least some of the same places — Phillips tells the story of what it was like to grow up with a criminally unreliable father. This is a father who woke his two children up in the middle of the night, Arthur and his twin sister Dana, and dragged them around a field with strange, heavy machinery for hours and hours in order to convince people that aliens had left crop circles. Arthur grows up not knowing whether anything his father gives him — a signed baseball for example — is real or a forgery. As you can imagine, Arthur has some psychological issues to work out.
His father’s legacy wasn’t all about forgery, however. The cons and forgeries had at their root — or at least this is how the father would explain it — a certain creativity and love of creating experiences of wonder. Thinking about the crop circle and the farmer who originally found it, Arthur writes,
My father didn’t want to make people stupider or mock stupidity or celebrate stupidity. When the farmer said, “The shape. The shape is so … beautiful, so …” and trailed off, my father was right there with him in spirit. I suspect that he wished, of all the participants in this whole enterprise, to be that farmer, to be fooled. My father had given him (and the world) this glimpse of something hidden. He was only dissatisfied to be the giver and not the recipient.
The father is also, along with Dana, thoroughly obsessed with Shakespeare. Arthur grew up with Shakespeare’s language forever in his ears. But this also is a complicated legacy. Arthur decides early on that he doesn’t like Shakespeare much, and while he correctly points out that this isn’t at all unusual, in his case it has at least something to do with the fact that Dana and their father bond over a love of the playwright and Arthur feels left out. He loves his sister dearly and feels he has some very weighty competition for her attention.
So, when his father bequeaths Arthur the lost Shakespeare play, Arthur has some serious thinking to do. Is it possible that this one time his father is telling the truth?
The memoir part of this book is a mix of a whole bunch of things — in addition to memoir, it’s also an anti-memoir, as Arthur complains about the genre every chance he gets, although it’s clear he needs the genre in order to make his point about his father and thus about the Shakespeare (?) play. It also contains a synopsis of the play, because that’s what an introduction is supposed to do, of course, and in that same spirit, it discusses the play’s themes and background. In addition to being all mixed up with the personal stories, however, this critical material is shaped in such a way as to further Arthur’s arguments about his father. It all ultimately revolves around Arthur himself — is the character Arthur in the play The Tragedy of Arthur supposed to be him? Was his father sending him a message?
Arthur writes notes for the play as well, and here it’s personal too: some of the notes speculate on where his father might have gotten his material from, if indeed he did write the play himself. In addition to Arthur’s notes, there are notes from a Shakespeare scholar, and these two voices contradict each other. In addition to everything else going on in this book, it’s also about the uncertainty of scholarship and the impossibility of finding a truly objective point of view. Arthur is obviously a biased reader — given the circumstances there is no way he could be anything else — but the scholar’s readings struck me as questionable as well. It’s clear that he wants the play to be authentic and some of his justifications and explanations seemed just as unreliable as Arthur’s speculations.
As for the play itself, it’s not bad. Those who claim it’s authentic say that it’s clearly very early Shakespeare, which means readers should not expect greatness of the Hamlet level and that is most certainly not what you get. But for what it is — whatever that is — it’s entertaining, with some fine speeches, interesting action, and a little bit of humor.
This is a playful book — complete with author biographies and publication lists of both Arthur Phillips and Shakespeare, because Shakespeare deserves credit, of course! — and I love that spirit. Give me a highly literary, self-reflexive, self-aware book that’s good but doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I’m a happy reader.