Written by on September 11, 2011

The Tragedy of Arthur, by Arthur Phillips

I was afraid this one would be too gimmicky for me, when I read that Phillips had used the trendoid ploy of creating a main character named Arthur Phillips, who is also an author. But the plot sucked me in enough that I stopped caring where Arthur Phillips the author left off and Arthur Phillips the character began. Phillips has created a triangle: Arthur Phillips the character, his twin sister Dana, and their shady father, who’s in and out of prison for forgery and other petty crimes. Dana and her father are Shakespeare fanatics; Arthur is not, so he spends his youth as odd man out, excluded from their William Shakespeare admiration society. Arthur’s bard fatigue made me identify with him: I often get restless watching the tragedies. I know everyone’s going to wind up dead, could we just wrap it up and get on with our lives?

But the balance between the three characters changes in the second half of the book. Arthur’s father entrusts him with what he claims to be the only copy of an unknown play by Shakespeare. Heartbreakingly, Arthur finally feels like he’s earned his father’s love, since the elder Phillips trusts him to use his connections as a writer to get it published. But knowing his father as he does, Arthur begins to wonder if he’s being had: certain passages sound like they could have been written by his dad, and there’s a character with the same name as the family dog. He’s in an impossible situation. If he abandons the project, he’ll alienate his sister and deny his family a good deal of money. If he goes through with it, and it IS a fraud, he’ll trash his own literary reputation. This dilemma keeps the plot moving — until you’re faced with reading the supposed play, to which the first 250 pages of the story are just an introduction. The play, heavily footnoted by Arthur and by numerous Shakespeare scholars was, at least for me, a long slog. But after the build-up, there was no way I could skip reading it. Probably readers who love Shakespeare would find this part of the book more engaging than I did.

This Amazon page has an interview with Phillips, in which he describes his friends having trouble separating his real self from his fictional one (“Wow, I didn’t realize that your father had been in prison!”)

author photo: Barbi Reed

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