The Tragedy of Arthur, by Arthur Phillips

This 2011 work is a marvelous conceit. It also belongs to the new world of metafiction. It is about Arthur Phillips, a novelist, our novelist, who lives under the spell of his brilliant twin sister Dana and his equally brilliant father Arthur.

The son Arthur, the narrator of this tale, feels that he has to continually prove himself to his own father. This is a father who is constantly absent because he is in jail, sent there as a con man with an ego who time and again has created fraudulent, if almost harmless, plots to fool the public. For example, as a boy, the son had once watched his father create crop circles in order to suggest an alien invader.

This novel is about what may be the father’s greatest con. It is built around the question of whether the Shakespearean play the father has “discovered,” the tragedy of ancient King Arthur, may actually be real, may actually be by Shakespeare. The father gives the play to his son to have it vetted and published. But is it truly by Shakespeare? Arthur has his doubts, even when classical scholars begin to verify its authenticity.

What is Arthur to do?  Does he go ahead and support what he senses is a lie? Or does he withdraw his support and risk the trust of his publisher and perhaps his own literary future?

But what makes this novel truly work as literature is less the moral issue that the son faces than his complex relationship with both his father and his sister. The son Arthur is a quiet, insecure man who appears to have no ego. But maybe he does, for he is constantly dueling with his brilliant sister for his father’s attention, as well as seeking his father’s approval. Perhaps knowing his father’s attraction to Shakespeare, the son turns himself into a writer; and this work lists the actual books the real author has written.

There are interesting psychological connections to the relationship between father, daughter, and son. The daughter is continually ingratiating herself with her father, always believing in his love, and now accepting that the Arthurian tragedy was really written by Shakespeare. While son Arthur deeply regrets a dispute over the authenticity of the Arthurian tragedy is coming between him and his sister. This is compounded by more guilt feelings prompted by his failing hopelessly in love with Petra, the lesbian lover of his sister. This is a sub story that is not convincing, however, and really goes nowhere.

But most of all, the son, who since his boyhood has sought the love of his distant farther, and has long resisted the belief that his father loves him, now is persuaded that his father may have given him the manuscript of Arthur in order to demonstrate his love of his son. For the father has now given up all monetary rights to the manuscript, and has left his son a legacy that will make him and his mother and sister rich for the rest of their lives. Which, of course, troubles the son. How can he reap the benefits of what he believes is a fraud?

The novel that we are reading is the son’s solution to his problem. It is an introduction to the play that offers his evidence of why he believes the text is a fraud, even if he cannot actually prove it. But as a tantalizing aside, the son also comes to realize that by writing novels, he is in one sense no better than his father, for as a novelist he himself is creating a fraud, a fraudulent reality.

This novel itself is actually fun to read after its slow start in which the author establishes the family relationships and the father’s fraudulent career. One, in fact, wonders at first where this novel is headed. But once the Shakespearean play appears, first as a 1904 printed work, and than as a 1597 original work, both interest and suspense build. Is the text truly real? Will son Arthur be able to prove it either way? How will his relationships end, with his father, his sister, the lesbian lover? And how will the publisher Random House react to his conviction that the discovered text is a fraud?

The reader is offered brief, but to me unimpressive, samples of the Shakespearean work, as well as emails from the father defending the veracity of the work, and emails from an understanding editor at Random House questioning whether son Arthur really means the manuscript is a fraud. There are also emails and conversations with his sister, betraying his uncertainty, both regarding the manuscript and his relationship with his father.

At the end of 256 pages, the entire novel, is a script of the actual Arthurian play of more than 100 pages. I confess I did not read this. I have never been able to connect with a Shakespearean play by reading it, only by seeing it performed. So after dipping into it and seeing the same problem, the archaic and poetic language that made no conversational sense, I abandoned it. Anyway, I knew it was not real; it was Phillips’ own work. There was no reward in reading it, except to admire the author’s nimble exercise in literary egotism. Yes, it lends authenticity to the novel, and we see what it was all about, but I so enjoyed the novel, I did not need that.

What I admire about Phillips is his literary adventurism. Every novel is completely different. This one is the most daring, for it takes on Shakespeare. No, not takes him on, but rather takes off from him. (September, 2013)

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