"THE TRAGEDY OF ARTHUR." By Arthur Phillips. Random. $26.
Arthur Phillips' new novel is more triumph than tragedy, a clever, funny literary deceit that skewers everything in its path -- scholars, Shakespeare lovers, anti-Stratfordians, family dynamics, the publishing world, bookish pretensions, even the author. It also slyly tackles some pointed questions about what we consider art and why, and if a rose by any other name would indeed smell as sweet. Yes. That's the sort of wonderful novel this is: It dredges up every familiar line that ever lodged itself in your consciousness.
"The Tragedy of Arthur" is structured as an introduction to a lost Shakespeare play written by a selfish, wounded, profoundly petty Arthur Phillips who shares many -- but hopefully not all -- the traits of the actual man. There's a play, too, at the end; it's not so interesting or well executed as the rest of the book, but it's also easy to skip or skim, should you lack curiosity about Phillips' ability to mimic the greatest playwright of all time.
This narrator Arthur -- who, like the real guy, has written four novels titled "Prague," "The Egyptologist," "Angelica" and "The Song is You" -- would disagree with that last sentence. He is not exactly in awe of the Bard; in fact, he sort of hates him. "If it didn't have his name on it, half his work would be booed off the stage, dismissed by critics as stumbling, run out of print," he sneers. "Instead we say it's Shakespeare; he must be doing something profound that we don't appreciate." Don't even get him started on Harold Bloom's theories.
Arthur comes by his hatred honestly, through a time-honored tradition of Prince Hal: rebellion against his father, a forger who began reading Shakespeare to his 6-year-old twins a year before his first trip to prison. (Once an unloved artist, he's the sort of dad who drags his children to a cornfield in the middle of the night to make crop circles: "The hard part of magic is letting it happen and not telling anyone," he says. "You can't tell anyone because that sucks the life out of what we did." Unmentioned is the fact that you might well end up in jail for your trouble.)
Young Arthur enjoyed the crop circles, but he wasn't terribly impressed with the Shakespeare. But his sister Dana was enchanted. "I saw that it bound her to Dad, so I faked it for a while," Arthur confides. But soon enough he eschews the playwright for the Minnesota Twins -- as in Shakespeare, twins are everywhere here -- and other pursuits. Their mother is ambivalent, divorcing their father and remarrying her old high-school flame with a minimum of fuss. Dana, however, is smitten with the works. Among her favorites is a curious edition of a play titled "The Tragedy of Arthur." A 1904 copy has been in the family for years now, an "oddity, a play that people argued about, that no one could decide about" with no definitive provenance. Maybe it's real; maybe it's a fake valuable for purely sentimental reasons. Arthur doesn't really care which; he's preoccupied with growing up, chasing women, becoming a writer, living in eastern Europe, marrying a model, having sons of his own. Until years later, when his father unveils what appears to be a quarto edition of the play dated 1597.
The old man claims it's the real deal.
To believe or not to believe; that's Arthur's question. He's justifiably dubious that his father could have laid hands on a heretofore unseen quarto, that he hasn't just somehow found a way to fool the experts by recreating era-perfect paper and ink (and iambic pentameter). Talk about outrageous fortune: If they truly have their hands on an undiscovered Shakespeare manuscript and can secure a copyright, they stand to make millions. Publisher Random House is practically drooling over the possibilities. Sadly, distracted, foolish Arthur is drooling over something -- someone -- else.
But of course Phillips, a master stylist, isn't merely interested in revealing the mystery of the quarto. "The Tragedy of Arthur" is really about the decline and fall of its narrator, that other Arthur who, like the troubled king, keeps tripping up his life despite his successes, the guy who gets good reviews but can't forgive his father, who commits an emotional crime against his beloved twin, who can't abide the fact that Shakespeare always gets the benefit of the doubt when he doesn't.
The play included at the end of the book sounds only marginally like Shakespeare; the structure is slightly off, the language lacking spark and dazzle. But perhaps we, too, are victims of what Arthur's father calls "aesthetic empiricism." But why does it matter who painted a picture, who wrote a play? asks Arthur, who figures if you like a work of art, you like it. End of story.
Not so, says his dad: "People like the brand name, and the brand name helps them enjoy the product and opens them to trust other products." Perhaps this is why Phillips' play, unlike the rest of his book, rings so hollow and ineffective.