Almost immediately after starting into Arthur Phillips' magnificent new novel, The Tragedy of Arthur, I began smiling. He opens with a pitch-perfect "editors' introduction" to a purportedly new play by Shakespeare, which decorously acknowledges the invaluable contributions, generous commitments, etc. of the various scholars who had been involved in the play's authentication. The introduction lists the names of those "who demand particular recognition": Scholars can be notoriously sensitive about rightful attention, and Phillips nails them in his confected introduction. I was smiling because I was certain, from this opening, that I was about to enjoy a lovely spring campus novel, clever and satirical, light but literary.
Were that the case, The Tragedy of Arthur wouldn't be what it is: easily one of the most-heralded novels of the season, and deservedly so. Indeed, its achievement surpasses a merely entertaining academic romp. In bright and rangy prose, and endlessly playing on some of Shakespeare's recurrent motifs and themes - succession anxieties, mistaken identities, appeals for vengeance and mercy, the interlocking of concealment and exposure, the mirroring of promise and betrayal - the novel is far more a funny, often moving autobiography of a serial forger's ambivalence-filled son, which becomes in turn a middle-aged writer's stocktaking of his own family life and career and long-standing, hateful relationship to Shakespeare, only then to transform into a riveting take on the publishing industry's appetites for buzz books and its matching anxieties about big disappointments.
All of these elements figure significantly in the first major part of the novel, which takes the form of Phillips's introduction to the second major part: a five-act, scholarly edition of The Tragedy of Arthur, purportedly written by Shakespeare himself (which, in its off notes and overripe elements, is a wonderfully done forgery on the part of the actual Phillips). In defence of his digressive, self-involved approach to completing his assigned work for the edition, the fictionalized Phillips explains that while "this seems a long way from an introduction to a newly discovered Shakespeare play … the truth of the play requires understanding the truth of my life."
The truth of that life has a great deal to do with the play's exposed author, Arthur Phillips Sr., the father of the novel's protagonist and a convicted felon and incorrigible Shakespeare lover. Onward from his Minnesota boyhood, Arthur Jr. has been beguiled and duped by his father's schemes to invest their lives with magic and wonder. These include a telescope that shows a half-dreaming little boy a group of aliens waving to him from Saturn, a baseball autographed by his hero, Rod Carew, and the midnight creation of crop-circle patterns in a farmer's field. Phillips works up the latter exploit through an exciting and mysterious sequence which eventually lands Arthur Sr. in prison and leads to a pathetically funny encounter: a depressing Hanukkah-time visit by young Arthur and his twin sister Dana to their incarcerated father, which culminates in Dana's boldly reciting judicially relevant portions of The Merchant Venice that glorify her father and shock, then anger, a prison guard.
Arthur has his own sorts of shock and anger about his old man, and also about Shakespeare, which occasion heated and thoughtful and frustrated contemplations about both. These in turn reveal a complex of father-son tensions and sibling dynamics, and patterns of escape and return and also of family breakdowns and restorations, coursing through all of which are Phillips's own literary ambitions, which become mashed up with Shakespeare when his aged father gives him an apparently 400-year-old manuscript and asks him to authenticate it and then enjoy the riches and fame that are sure to follow. Reluctantly, inevitably, the son follows through, which leads to an at-times-suspenseful account of Philips's publisher deciding to verify and then publish the play in spite of Arthur's eventual insistence that he knows - better than any number of smitten and esteemed scholars - that it's definitely a fake, the fitting final testament of loving, scheming father to his beloved, played-out son.
Randy Boyagoda's new novel is Beggar's Feast. He is a professor of English at Ryerson University.
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