Saturday, August 06, 2011

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips (2011)

The next LibraryThing Early Reviewers book in my pile is The Tragedy of Arthur (2011) by Arthur Phillips. Spacebeer readers who pay even more attention than I do will remember that I read Phillips' first book, Prague way back in 2006 for the first meeting of the awesome, but now defunct/transmogrified Smarter Than You Book Club. I remember liking Prague but having some reservations, and I feel similarly towards The Tragedy of Arthur, although Phillips gets way more ambition points with the conceit of his most recent novel.

"The Tragedy of Arthur" in The Tragedy of Arthur is an undiscovered Shakespeare play that our narrator's father discovered and liberated from a wealthy manor house over thirty years ago. Of course, our narrator's father is a talented forger who has spent most of the intervening years in prison. And our narrator happens to be a novelist named Arthur Phillips who has written several books, including a debut novel titled Prague.

Although he is suspicious at first, all the experts agree that the 1597 edition of "The Tragedy of Shakespeare" that his father found are authentic, and Arthur enters into a contract with his publisher, Random House, to publish this unseen play. Arthur secures the right to write the introduction and annotate the play for modern audiences himself. But when his doubts of the play's authenticity increase and Random House refuses to stop publication, he bulks his introduction to the play up into a 250 page memoir / explanation of his life, his father, his twin sister, his failed relationships, and everything else.

And then, just in case you didn't think Phillips was the smartest guy in the room, we have the text of "The Tragedy of Arthur": a five-act, straight-faced, iambic pentameter-ed, credibly Shakespearean tragedy. Complete with annotations by Arthur and co/cross-annotations by a Shakespearean expert.

Setting the novel's weaknesses aside, you have to admire Phillips' ambition and dedication to pull this off. It's awfully, awfully, clever, and he does it well. The meditations on forgery and reality are well thought out, and the comments on the legacy of Shakespeare are all pretty accurate and difficult to argue with, whether you love or hate the Bard.

While the introduction is well written, I was often put off by Phillips' distancing word play ("disparate desperate adventures," "disoriented in the JFK holding area where counterterrorism shades into countertourism") and meta-ness (it's a character, with the name of the author, writing an introduction, to a fake play, that really exists, and the introduction's like a memoir, and he tells us it's like a memoir! And why he hates memoirs!). I don't think that the revelations of the narrator's intentions end up being as emotionally connecting as Phillips' hopes they will be, and the unsatisfying twist that leads to those revelations is an out of character reaction to Arthur on the behalf of every other character of the novel.

Arthur Phillips' "Arthur Phillips" owes some literary debt to Phillip Roth's "Phillip Roth," and like Roth's novels that I've read, the narrator of The Tragedy of Arthur is very self centered, has ridiculous relationships with women, and kind of turns me off with his overly dude-centered ways. And although Phillips is a good writer, he doesn't have the dark, neurotic, over-the-topness that keeps me reading Roth even though I find most of his characters pretty despicable. I think that both Roth and Phillips want their narrators to be unlikable, but Roth pulls it off in a way that Phillips does not.

Either way, this book obviously gave me a lot to think about, and although when I just re-read what I wrote about it I realize I had a lot of criticisms, I really did like the novel overall. Anyone with a sense of literary playfulness, and particularly any English nerds who have read a lot of Shakespeare, will get a lot of enjoyment from this book.

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