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The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips
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May 27, 2011

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When I reviewed Arthur Phillips's last novel The Song Is You, I faulted Phillips for filtering the central relationship (a love affair that never quite happens) through a series of moments that felt a little more sentimentalized than actually lived. In the new The Tragedy of Arthur Phillips takes a sharp left turn into the personal by way of metafiction. What we are reading is supposedly Phillips's introduction to the first publication of a newly discovered Shakespeare play about King Arthur. The "introduction" is over 250 pages long and reveals not one but two Arthurs, the author and his freewheeling con man of a father. The early chapters are a picaresque memoir that involves Arthur being an unwitting accomplice to some of his father's doings. It's the senior Phillips who brings the play to light and manages to overcome the suspicions of his son and Shakespeare-loving daughter as to its authenticity. The rest of the book is the full script of this "new", five-act Shakespearean play. It's Shakespeare who plays the role of father that Mr. Phillips cannot (due to his frequent prison sentences). Arthur has great fun with apologists who excuse the Bard's worst moments by claiming that Shakespeare was ahead of his time, but mirrors this behavior by repeatedly returning to put himself at the center of his father's shenanigans. Arthur's relationships with women, especially his sister's girlfriend, also flounder due to his lack of a good example. It's Arthur's sister Dana who escapes her father's curse, finding a way to celebrate Shakespeare (she becomes an actress) that doesn't involve a cycle of pulling away from and drawing back to her Dad.

The story of Arthur and Arthur eventually becomes a sort of thriller: Will young Arthur risk lawsuits and infamy (as well as forgo a big payday), break his contract with Random House, and not allow the play to be published? Since we know the play's true provenance the question is moot; it's whether Arthur can succeed as a man and a writer on his own that matters. Shakespeare can't be torn down but he also can't be piggybacked off of; that's the one thing Arthur's Dad fails to see. I wonder about including the entire script; while the play The Tragedy of Arthur (with dueling footnotes by Arthur and a Shakespearean scholar) is an entertaining enough read I found myself wanting to speed through it after the novel's conclusion. The play might have worked better as a sort of MacGuffin, constantly discussed but never fully seen. The complicated things that pass between father and son are well and imaginatively handled here, and I'll continue to return to Phillips's books to watch his next move. The Tragedy of Arthur is a literary game with not one but two beating hearts at its center. (also posted at Mostly Movies)
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