The Tragedy of Arthur’s well-deserved hype has focused on the metafictional moxie of its author, Arthur Phillips, particularly in the novel’s last 100 or so pages. In them, he offers up a putatively “lost” five-act, fully annotated play by Shakespeare called “The Tragedy of Arthur”—the authenticity of which is the central question in this extraordinarily inventive, extraordinarily good novel.
The play, naturally, is a fraud, but one convincing enough to have merited begrudging praise from the eminent Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt, who wrote recently in the New York Times that Phillips is: “someone who deeply grasps how Shakespeare would sound if an assiduous imitator had mastered all his tricks without commanding a shred of his genius.”
The Tragedy of Arthur is much more than a showcase for Phillips’ uncanny impersonation of Shakespeare, however. In fact, reading the play is entirely optional to an appreciation of the novel that is disguised as its elaborate, 250-page Introduction.
The novel’s narrator is Arthur Phillips, who, like the real Arthur Phillips, is the Minneapolis-born author of four novels, including Prague and The Egyptologist. Arthur Phillips (the character) and his gay twin sister Dana have lived their lives under the confusing sway of their unreliable father, a convicted con artist and forger also named Arthur Phillips.
When he wasn’t doing time for forging lottery tickets or increasing the market value of a painting by signing Rembrandt’s name to it, Arthur Sr. used his ersatz talents to charm and mesmerize his children. When the twins are ten, he wakes them in the dead of night to make crop circles in a farmer’s field—a stunt, like so many of his plots, committed not for financial gain but “To add to the world’s store of precious possibility.”
Because so much of what their father does is a con, the twins wrestle with the question of whether his fakery is an expression of love or whether his love itself boils down to the spurious manipulations of a narcissist. When Arthur is 12 and “deep in an espionage fetish,” his father makes him an authentic-looking Soviet passport for his birthday: “I knew that the work involved—the research, the hand stitching, the specialized glue and paints—reflected his sincere love for me.” Sixteen-year-old Dana receives a “consolation” license after failing her driver’s exam twice.
Later, convinced that everything his father does is a hoax, young Arthur throws away the gift he values the most—a baseball signed by Minnesota Twins’ star Rod Carew—only to find out years later that it was the real McCoy.
A profound love of Shakespeare being the one authentic thing the twins can discern about their father, both sought in their youth to define their relationship to him through the Bard: Dana in her total embrace of him and Arthur Jr. in his equally fierce rejection.
Given the long history of deceit that, among other things, leads to his parent’s divorce and contributes to a lifetime of soul-searching and his own troubled marriage, it’s with a healthy dose of cynicism that Arthur greets the news from his still-jailed father that he has the only extant copy of a lost play by Shakespeare locked away in a safety deposit box. Still craving his father’s approval, Arthur is eventually won over by the seeming-authenticity of the play and by his father’s surprise announcement that he is dying and thus stands to gain nothing from the play being published. Arthur, Dana, their mother, and Arthur’s publisher, Random House, on the hand, are poised to become millionaires.
By the time Arthur discovers irrefutable evidence that the play is a fake, however (having already shrugged off other signs, like the fact that several of the play’s characters have the same names as members of his family and the lawyer that prosecuted his father), his father is dead. And Random House, which Arthur describes as “an office full of pigeons celebrating because they’d stumbled onto a bag of poisoned corn,” unwilling to walk away from a potential diamond mine, sides with the bevy of cuckolded scholars they hired to confirm the play’s authenticity. Arthur’s insistence that the play is fake is countered with threats of litigation. Arthur thus uses the Introduction he is contractually bound by Random House to write, in order to present the backstory that he hopes will prove the play’s illegitimacy.
Phillips’ genius lies as much in his killing humour as in his flawless narrative and stylistic execution—think Pale Fire meets The Corrections with the tongue-in-cheek brilliance of both. This is a novel that resists being put down as much as the best-fought revolutions; parting is indeed sweet sorrow when we reach the final page.
—Emily Donaldson, a freelance editor and reviewer