Rating: 3.75/5Arthur Phillips’ The Tragedy of Arthur is an intellectual labyrinth in which you can see the end in plain sight, yet take pleasure in the tortuous path along the way. The writer’s fifth novel is an audacious thought experiment, or a load of postmodern hokum, depending on your point of view. The book consists of two parts, a long “introduction” written by a presumably fictional version of the author and a manuscript of a long lost Shakespeare play entitled The Most Excellent and Tragical Historie of Arthur, King of Britain. The novel’s central conceit is that “Arthur Phillips” came into possession of this 110-page text by the Bard and, despite his skepticism about its authenticity, was forced contractually by Random House, Inc. to write an introduction to the text and hand over the manuscript for publication.
Phillips uses the 250-page “introduction” that forms the bulk of the novel as a memoir of his complicated family and personal history. Arthur was supposedly given the Shakespearean manuscript by his trickster father, also named Arthur, who did significant time in jail for forgery and other miscellaneous petty crimes. He was responsible for such baffling, awe-striking hoaxes as making crop circles on a farm with a machine that he designed. Arthur Jr. holds a grudge against his father for abandoning him and his twin sister Dana during childhood, yet wants nothing more than to be accepted and respected by Arthur Sr. as a writer and human being. As the narrator explicates how he was given the monumental task of authenticating the manuscript and seeing to its publication, he goes into heavy confessional mode, describing his failed marriage, his seduction of his sister’s lesbian lover and his complex relationship with his brilliant, yet deeply flawed father.
Through the entire narrative, Phillips remains a skeptic not only of The Tragedy of Arthur’s authenticity, but of the so-called “cult of Shakespeare” prevalent among teachers, students, actors, directors and scholars. Unlike Dana, who wholeheartedly buys into Arthur Sr.’s unquestioning love of the Bard, Arthur Jr. feels that too much adoration is heaped upon Shakespeare’s plays solely based on the name attached to them. He doesn’t find the emotional weight in the themes or the humanistic passion in the characters that his father and sister seem to feel when confronted with the writer’s seminal works. The author’s exploration of whether a play is great because it is written by Shakespeare or whether Shakespeare is great because he wrote such sublime literature is the novel’s most fascinating thematic concern.
The narrator becomes so skeptical of the manuscript’s authenticity that he wishes to sever all ties with the text, threatening at one point to burn his edition of the play, seemingly the only extant copy. Random House will have nothing of it and intimidates the writer with a law suit for breach of contract. The reader shares his skepticism upon reading the actual manuscript in the final third of the novel. It’s mind boggling to consider the effort that must have gone into the actual author Phillips’ forging of a complete Shakespeare play. If the purported manuscript is not very good, it serves its narrative purpose in the larger context of the work. Sure, it’s a lifeless, rather predictable piece of Arthurian legend. The characters lack the depth and psychological complexity we would expect from the real Bard. Phillips painstakingly captures the cadences and linguistic connotations of Shakespearean English, though. We have no problem believing that the Arthurian tragedy could be the work of a masterful con artist, a highly intelligent, determined prankster who takes pains to replicate Shakespeare’s technique but is unable to capture his unique insight into the human condition.
Though the manuscript portion of The Tragedy of Arthur is a chore to get through at times, it is worth the effort. Phillips’ novel joins the ranks of such literary works as Nabokov’s Pale Fire and “documentary” films like Exit Through the Gift Shop and F for Fake that make us question what it means to label art as “great” or “authentic.” Phillips manages to explore this vital theme in a way that keeps us scratching our heads in befuddlement. I can’t help but think that somewhere the actual Shakespeare is laughing with delight.