Carl's Reviews > The Tragedy of Arthur

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips
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's review
Jul 26, 2015

it was amazing
bookshelves: american, literature, 21st-century-fiction
Read in July, 2011

To call a novel "clever" is usually to damn it with faint praise. In the case of this novel, I feel inordinately compelled to have "clever" be the first adjective I use: the imagination that goes into this epitome of the postmodern novel simply boggles the mind.

But the praise is not faint, at least from me. As a faux memoir, the "introduction" is an entertaining, well-wrought if somewhat overwrought text. Phillips effectively manages the complex interplay of solipsism, unreliable narrator, (fake) personal history, and metafiction. He wrote a "Shakespeare" play, for crying out loud -- how elegantly can he manage the complimenting and criticizing of it without protesting too much, or maneuvering us into sympathizing? When it comes down to it, though, his Shakespeare is really, impressively, artfully, shockingly good. Not a first-tier Shakespeare, I grant, but deserving of exaltation within the set of Renaissance drama. He knows his motifs and his Shakespeare, to be sure; all the humor is in the allusion, none in the plot, but the twinning (even up to the narrator's favorite baseball team) and quoting add up to layers of intellectual reward. I would love to see the resulting play performed; I can easily envision quoting some of its best lines in the way that others of Shakespeare's lines worm their way into conversation. No small feat!

It may not be subtle on this point, but the novel as a whole is an extraordinarily robust evocation of the death of faith, which is why I find it so epitomically postmodern. The terse battle between the footnote-writers, the multiple levels of "Arthurs", the multiple applications of the term "Tragedy" (with reference to the various Arthurs), the play within the play (novel), the sniping of neologisms from other 16th-17th century texts -- wonderfully imaginative stuff. The research alone impresses; the writing enhances.

I enjoyed this book immensely, much more for the Shakespeare than for the 20th century sibling drama. It is an extraordinary effort, fun for the unraveling.
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07/10/2011 page 220

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