Bruce's Reviews > The Tragedy of Arthur

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips
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Jul 16, 12

Read in July, 2012

The structure of this novel is odd and intriguing. It begins with a preface allegedly provided by the publisher, Random House, but which is clearly part of the narrative and the conceit that the author is using. The book’s very title is, of course, part of the imaginative content, the first person unreliable narrator having the same name as the true author, and “The Tragedy of Arthur” being the title of a recently discovered Shakespearean play, that very title having several possible interpretations. After the very brief preface, an introduction written by the character Arthur Phillips and lasting more than 250 pages follows, after which is appended the play itself. And that is it, the structure that the author has chosen and in which he intends to confine himself. Interesting, indeed.

Phillips’ writing – the narrator’s, not just the author’s – is witty, even when self-consciously so, and the author captures the tones and affectations of adolescence and young adulthood perfectly, using the identity and foil of the narrator and his twin sister skillfully to explore subtleties of emotion. The author weaves his own true autobiography into the narrator’s story in such a way as to blend and validate the conceit he has chosen for the story. Very skillful, very intriguing, and captivating.

The middle third of the introduction, though, descends to much seemingly needless and distracting noodling, a sort of authorial memoir that wanders without apparent purpose, as if the author were being paid by the page and needed filler. Maybe this accurately reflects the state of the narrator Arthur’s life at the time, thus justifying the ennui. His con artist father, perhaps the most interesting character in the book, is left briefly by the wayside, and his twin sister, easily the next most interesting character, is used mainly as a foil to his own improbable attempts at maturation and independence. Then the pace quickens. Arthur’s father rejoins his children, Dana’s partner Petra becomes the focus of Arthur’s longing (or lust), and the project of authenticating and publishing Shakespeare’s play increasingly consumes the effort and attention of all concerned. Never far below the surface is the issue of Arthur’s desperate yearning for his father’s (and then his sister’s) approval. But this is complicated by Arthur’s growing conviction that the play is a forgery and that his now dead father is pulling a final monumental con.

Imbedded in this narrative are fascinating questions about artistic creation, about the role and reputation of the artist, about originality and artistic judgment and criticism. What makes an artist or a work “good?” What makes an artist renowned? Is originality or is skill within a genre more important? What criteria do we use when judging a work of art? Why does reputation often wax and wane, and do the criteria for judging a work change with the times? Arthur the narrator begins this work with the assertion, “I have never much liked Shakespeare,” and Arthur the author uses this dislike and skepticism as a tool to explore these questions.

Eventually do we all become our parents? Does Arthur become the equivalent of his father? Ultimately this novel is about relationships and identity. “So much of Shakespeare is about being at a loss for identity.” We worship at the shrine of our self-uniqueness, terrified by the realization that few of us are truly unique. And we rely on others to affirm us, to make us real. Each of us feels that somehow our parents, even as they care for us, are also in some way to blame for the existential aloneness that we experience as part of being human. Forgiving our parents, as Arthur’s sister reminds him, is strengthening; it means that you don’t need them to help you be you anymore. And does Shakespeare, as Harold Bloom has suggested, define our humanity? Have Shakespeare’s characters already defined and presaged the roles we play? Is Arthur the author, Arthur the narrator? Is either of them, or both, the Arthur of Shakespeare’s play, if it is Shakespeare’s play? Who is any of us, really?

Finally the reader arrives at the play itself. And what is it like? No Shakespeare scholar, I, although I’ve read all his plays more than once and seen many of them performed. This place certainly reads like Elizabethan drama and presents a central character of complexity, enigmatic to his core. The play is purported to be “early Shakespeare,” but I am not enough of a Shakespeare scholar to judge of that. It is in any event most enjoyable, and it is fun to compare its themes and central character with the tale that Arthur the narrator has told, both play and Introduction shedding light on each other. Each Arthur is solipsistic, impulsive, needing and wanting of affection and affirmation. Each is prey to his own desires and has difficulty viewing the world through the eyes of others. A play within a novel becomes the lens through which we come to view ourselves.

Phillips has written a novel that is clever, creative, thought provoking, and entertaining, exemplifying the use of the unreliable narrator to weave a tale as complex as it is elegant and witty. I’m glad I read it.
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message 1: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian Paganus Wonderful review, Bruce. I've read "Prague" and enjoyed it, but wouldn't expect it to be to everybody's taste. I regard Phillips as a major contemporary author (in the league of Richard Powers), but I just have to make a decision to start this novel. To be honest, I'm a bit intimidated by it, but your review reassures me that it's worth the effort.


Bruce I will be interested in reading your reaction, Ian.


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