The Tragedy of Arthur (book review)

The Tragedy of Arthur is a book by Arthur Phillips.

Arthur Phillips, incidentally, is a writer who has hovered at the periphery of my awareness for a while, mostly for his novel Angelica (which I have yet to read but now certainly plan to), and here he demonstrates a level of playfulness, imagination, and earnest workmanship that is pretty refreshing, and redeems what could have easily been a heartless postmodern endeavor.

The plot of the novel is something like this: Arthur Phillips (the writer/narrator) is the son of Arthur Phillips (a many-times convicted forger), who upon his death bequeaths Arthur the younger a lost Shakespeare quarto, The Tragedy of Arthur — this third Arthur being the king.  Arthur the writer/narrator believes the quarto to be fake (eventually) but due to a legal fuckarow is contractually obligated to write the introduction to the play (which everyone else thinks is real) when it is published by Random House.  The first two-thirds of the novel are this introduction, in which Phillips delves into semifantastical memoir describing his childhood, his relationship with his twin sister Dana, his con man father, and the whole family’s complicated relationship to Shakespeare.  The last third of the novel is the play itself.

(Now, despite Angelica — a ghost story — being what brought AP to my attention, you may see why I went for Tragedy as soon as it hit shelves, right?)

This novel’s been well reviewed, to understate it a little.  I mean, this isn’t early Jonathan Safran Foer effusive praise, of course, but everyone is pretty set on this being a good novel, especially people who “count” like Michiko Kakutani and Shakespeareans Greenblatt and Shapiro.  And they are right, it is a good novel!  So if you need to hear it from someone more than “a dude on the internet” then there you go.  Now, we can delve into the gritty of what I think about this thing.

I’ll be up front about my big gripe here, which is that the actual play The Tragedy of Arthur is kind of a slog.  My precise feelings about this are complicated, for reasons I’ll get to in a second, but I’ll stage it first in terms of technicality.  You have a 360 page book, the last 100 pages of which are a (fake[?]) Shakespeare play written as such, while the preceding bulk of the tome was a flighty author enormously screwing up his life.  It should not take a rocket scientist to see why an abrupt transition in styles, tone, and language can potentially shut down a reader, or throw off the groove, or whatever.  My point is that it’s difficult to make the transition from one part of the narrative to the next.

This makes me wonder what it would be like if the book were just the introduction.  That would be too much of a tease, wouldn’t it?  To go on and on about this play, and then not print it?  It occurred to me at one point that the traditional (really?) postmodern thing to do in this regard would be to have the manuscript of the play be destroyed, thus making the introduction the only thing left to print, and the name of the rose is all that remains and so on.  A plot point of the introduction would be Phillips, say, destroying the quarto or allowing it to be destroyed, which makes life seem nice and inoffensive and hollow and saves him the trouble of actually faking some Shakespeare.  So in one way the warmth of the novel is attributable to the fact that, despite all his games, Arthur Phillips sat the fuck down and wrote a play in blank verse, complete with act and scene breaks, vocabulary glosses, and contextual notes.

Except it’s kind of intentionally a bad play.  Kakuktani’s remarks regarding it (“lumpy”) and Greenblatt’s thought that it is a gifted imitator lacking the genius pretty much hit the mark.  This makes me wonder.

Is the effort enough?  That Phillips actually sat down and wrote this damn thing, and there’s some value in that?  Hell, if I’m completely honest it even has a few good bits of dialogue I wish Shakespeare had written.

The best parts of the play itself by far are the Nabokovian footnotes, where Arthur Phillips argues with Random House’s hired Bardolator over the play’s authenticity, but after the genuinely intriguing and moving introduction it all seems a little rushed, truncated, tacked on.  Suffice it to say I’m intensely ambivalent about that, then, but the novel is still definitely worth a read.   Shapiro, I think, says it best when he calls this a work of literary criticism disguised as fiction: it does this neat thing where all of the themes of seeming, of authenticity and art and the stage and life, in Shakespeare’s plays get flipped around and turned on the man himself (if he ever existed).

The novel raises the possibility — one I’m partial to — that our idea of Shakespeare is more important than the mundane reality of him, and I don’t mean that in an exactly rapturous Bloomian sense.  It recalls the authorship debate, and at least some parts of Phillips’s novel suggest that it’s unimportant whether a man from Stratford wrote these plays, or if Bacon or Oxford or Arthur Phillips or his dad did, because if there is some nebulous, numinous cloud that envelops all these people which we in aggregate recognize as Shakespeare, then that might be all that matters.

Here is a bonus review of DFW’s The Pale King, which I read just before I read Tragedy:

The Pale King is unfinished.  This does not stop it from being better than Infinite Jest.  I will not be one of those reviews who says “Maybe it was intentionally unfinished, huh” because though I am something of a formalist I am not that committed to deifying DFW.  What we have is observably unfinished, assembled by an editor, and we have notes to hint at what might have been more.  Still, in its broken state, The Pale King is better than IJ.  IJ had me and lost me several times, but TPK kept me for the whole way through, could have kept me for more, had there been more.  It is a number of adjectives.  It is beautiful, it is funny, it is sad, it is infuriating, it is perhaps the most terrifying (literally frightening, scary) thing I have read in the past five years.  I do not know if something can be so unfinished and still count as a masterpiece but in my head it most definitely can.

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