The Tragedy of Arthur

This novel shows an impressive commitment to presenting an entirely real-feeling fake

Book Review

The Tragedy of Arthur

by Arthur Phillips
Random House, 384 pp., $26

With an impressive commitment to presenting an entirely real-feeling fake, Phillips frames The Tragedy of Arthur as the new Random House publication of a previously unheard-of play by William Shakespeare, called The Most Excellent and Tragical Historie of Arthur, King of Britain, with a preface and introduction precursing the play's text in full. The preface urges the reader to start first with the play that concludes the book, and I'd urge the same: While competently written and essential to understanding all the mirroring dynamics, it's a leaden way to go out on a book that fizzes with verve.

The introduction is where the really great stuff is found, wherein Arthur Phillips the character – who bears teasing but inconclusive similarity to the man who previously penned Prague and This Song Is Ours, among others – is tasked with describing how Arthur's father, a convicted forger, filched the play from a mouldering fate at some English estate in the Fifties.

Is it his greatest con yet or the real deal? A petulant Arthur more or less ignores the question for much of his sprawling, self-obsessed introduction, instead detailing his upbringing in Minnesota with his twin sister, Dana, who fell hard for Shakespeare early on the influence of their father. Arthur père, who spends the bulk of the twins' lives in jail, is a man so lonesome for a spot of wonder in the world that he casts himself as the fall guy – in essence, he'll make wonder for others (as in an entrancing passage when he fakes crop circles, to the delight and bewilderment of the general public), even if in the end the action only amplifies his own isolation.

That's the romantic view of it, at least. Arthur is much harsher on his father – in his mind, that history of "wonder-making" is ruinous to the authenticity of the play. But Arthur saves the bulk of his derision for himself, even as you sense the performative aspect to it. In a neat trick, he charms all the more from the prostrate position.

There is, it must be said, a suffocating quality to the book. It's easy to admire Phillips' invention – and unavoidable to weary of its single-minded obsession with the Bard. But always there is the uplift of Phillips' precise, pictorial prose (witness "the cocker spaniels in their Cuban-bandleader pants") and his plucking of so much comedy in the tragedy.

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