Monday, February 13, 2012

THE TRAGEDY OF ARTHUR by Arthur Phillips

Arthur Phillips has taken a page out of Nabokov's book, Pale Fire, to create a play (rather than a poem) with a mass of largely superfluous footnotes and a huge introduction that really constitutes the novel.  Always innovative, Phillips himself is the narrator, focusing on his relationship with his prison-bound father, Arthur Sr., who, limited only by his imagination, enjoyed the occupation of forger, just to see how much he could get away with.  The play within, according to Arthur Sr., is a never-before-published work by William Shakespeare, iambic pentameter and all, about King Arthur (yes, that's 3 Arthurs), or it is Arthur Sr.'s fraudulent masterpiece.  Arthur Sr. is the embodiment of the boy who cried wolf, having deceived and humiliated his family so many times that his son has to assume that every gift from his father, including a baseball legitimately signed by Rod Carew, is a fake.  Arthur Jr.'s twin sister Dana is as much a Shakespeare fan as her father and is willing to cut him some slack, because she loves the play, regardless of its origin.  In fact, despite Arthur Jr.'s success as a novelist, Dana is still Dad's favorite, so that Arthur Jr. has to question why his father gave him this rare relic to bring to the attention of the world.  This book was a struggle for me to read, and I found the author's (exaggerated?) conceit a little over-the-top, especially when Dana tells Arthur Jr. that he is a better writer than Shakespeare.  The section in which the author discusses the possibly undeserved rise of Shakespeare's standing against other literary greats was more insightful than the section in which Dana explores the age-old theories about alternative or collaborative authors for Shakespeare's plays.  The author also suggests—perhaps seriously, perhaps not—that the bard taught us how to respond to love and war, to treachery and power.  The Phillips family has all of these dynamics at work but generally failed to stir my emotions, and I'm not familiar enough with Shakespeare's plays to observe any parallels there.  This is certainly my least favorite of Phillips' novels, and I would recommend it for Shakespeare-ophiles only.

No comments: