The Tragedy of Arthur
by Arthur Phillips
Reviewed by Heller McAlpin
It's no secret that Arthur Phillips, king of a round table of self-deluded characters, is a devotee of Vladimir Nabokov. All of his novels, beginning with Prague (2003), showcase disarmingly brainy playfulness, rapier wit and acrobatic verbal sparring. His fifth book, The Tragedy of Arthur, is his wildest and funniest yet, at once homage to Nabokov's Pale Fire, satire of literary hagiography in general and Shakespeare scholarship in particular, and a hilarious yet trenchant riff on memoirs. His concept is so clever and fantastic -- a long-lost Shakespeare tragedy is reluctantly ushered into print by Arthur Phillips, the skeptical son of a convicted forger -- that the only question, through guffaws, is whether he can sustain it.
For The Tragedy of Arthur, his first book set (partly) in his native Minnesota, Phillips has once again mastered and mocked a realm of scholarship. The Egyptologist (2004), an archaeological murder mystery set in 1922 Egypt, featured a crazed, anagrammatic stand-in: deranged scholar Ralph M. Trilipush. Angelica (2007), a study in hysteria set in Victorian London, cast dark shadows on psychotherapy, ghost stories and Henry James. Dozens of popular song titles were imbedded in Phillips' last novel, The Song is You (2009), which evoked Nabokov's Lolita with a flirtatious cat-and-mouse multimedia chase.
Like Pale Fire, The Tragedy of Arthur spins a long introduction and pseudo-scholarly footnotes around a fabricated poetic work, leading to a ribald, wily debate about authenticity, illusion and delusion. At its heart is an unknown five-act Shakespearean tragedy purported to be the only extant copy of a 1596 quarto pinched by the author's father from an English country manse in the 1950s. At his father's instruction, narrator Phillips retrieves this quarto from the safe deposit box in which it has been locked away during the decades his father was locked away in prison -- for multiple forgeries, including lottery tickets and the promotion of a "small picture, briefly, from anonymity to Rembrandtivity."
In order to explain his family's involvement in this document's publication in a Modern Library edition, the Phillips character casts his eye back "across time's moat," necessitating, to his horror, a plunge not just into the "Fakespeare bog" but into "that most dismal," "underregulated" genre: memoir. Doing "the legal minimum, lest the whole freyed tissue unravel" (note pun on disgraced memoirist James Frey), his confessional saga centers on his confused relationship with his unreliable, "flamboyantly literary" father. Memoirist Phillips is torn between dismissive doubt and wanting to please this man who extols "wonder and magic, disorder, confusion, possibility" and scorns facts, debunkers, and "Santa Clausicidal maniacs." As is often the case in Shakespeare, Phillips' story involves a twin -- bipolar, lesbian actress Dana, who, unlike her brother, shares their father's fondness for the Bard.
The Shakespearean work in question, when we finally get to it, is a tour de force of fanatically researched stylistic mimicry. It's somewhat heavy-going, but its punch lies in the running battle between the Phillips character and Professor Roland Verre (a glass-half-empty sort of fellow) waged in the footnotes. Where Phillips sees his father's manipulative hand in the play's anachronistic echoes of Dr. Strangelove, in characters named for his father's enemies, and in his own shared birthday with the work's central character, King Arthur, Verre sees Phillips' delusional narcissism. He repeatedly cites Shakespeare's source material and the positive results of various forensics tests to debunk Phillips' assertions and defend the play's authenticity -- casting Phillips not as reasonably skeptical but as crazy. On the shared birthday, Verre comments, "there are many far more likely explanations for this reference than that the play was forged to honor a twenty-first century American novelist."
Full of jousting and jesting, the thrust and parry of The Tragedy of Arthur is deliciously stimulating. And how's this for a disclaimer, from King Arthur:
I am no author of my history.
What man knows aught of his own chronicle?