A long-lost Shakespeare play surfaces in Phillips's wily fifth novel, a sublime faux memoir framed as the introduction to the play's first printing—a Modern Library edition, of course. Arthur Phillips and his twin sister, Dana, maintained an uncommon relationship with their gregarious father, a forger whose passion for the bard and for creating magic in the everyday (he takes his kids to make crop circles one night) leave lasting impressions on them both: Dana becomes a stage actress and amateur Shakespeare expert; Arthur a writer who "never much liked Shakespeare." Their father spends most of their lives in prison, but when he's about to be released as a frail old man, he enlists Arthur in securing the publication of The Tragedy of Arthur from an original quarto he claims to have purloined from a British estate decades earlier, though, as the authentication process wears on—successfully—Arthur becomes convinced the play is his father's greatest scam. Along the way, Arthur riffs on his career and ex-pat past, and, most excruciatingly, unpacks his relationship with Dana and his own romantic flailings. Then there's the play itself, which reads not unlike something written by the man from Stratford-upon-Avon. It's a tricky project, funny and brazen, smart and playful. (Apr.)
A memoir and a Shakespearean play wrapped into a novel? Who could pull this off but the prolific Phillips (Prague; The Egyptologist; Angelica; The Song Is You)? The narrator—a knockoff of the author himself?—relates the obsession of his father and twin sister with the Bard of Avon and the discovery within the family of a hitherto unknown play by none other than. Our narrator then recounts the tribulations of family life, centered on his dad's frequent incarcerations for forgeries of artworks (and plays?). At length the father persuades his son the narrator to sell the play, and it is bought by—you guessed it—with the understanding that the narrator would pen an introduction to contextualize the play, the "introduction" becoming the memoir that is considerably longer than the play. This drama, The Tragedy of Arthur, is presented in full herewith, duly annotated by both the narrator and an academic. The Bard would be amused to be set center-stage by someone who professes to have no patience with him, while the narrator pokes wicked fun at the ubiquitous memoir genre. VERDICT Highly recommended for all who enjoy inspired, original, entertaining writing—deftly delivered here by one of our most talented arthurs, uh, authors. [An LJ Editors' Pick, p. 29; see Prepub Alert, 11/22/10.]—Edward Cone, New York
I suspect that most readers will greatly enjoy Phillips's easygoing and digressive, if admittedly self-absorbed introduction. Just think of the joyless academic prose that a professional Elizabethan might have produced!…The Tragedy of Arthur, however you view it, shows off a writer at the top of his game.
The Washington Post
…Arthur Phillips has found the perfect vehicle for his cerebral talents: his ingenuity; his bright, elastic prose; and, most notably, his penchant for pastichefor pouring his copious literary gifts into old vessels and reinventing familiar genres…With The Tragedy of Arthur Mr. Phillips has created a wonderfully tricky Chinese puzzle box of a novel that is as entertaining as it is brainy. If its characters are a little emotionally predictable, we don't mind all that much: we're more interested in seeing how the author cuts and sands his puzzle pieces, assembles them into a pretty contraption and then inserts lots of mirrors and false bottoms.
The New York Times
…the novelist's art is a cunning ability to lure the reader into treating counterfeit bills as if they were current. And this particular novela fictional memoir posing as a fraudulent introduction to a forged playis a spectacular instance of the confidence game. It is a tribute to Arthur Phillips's singular skill that his work leaves the reader not with resentment at having been tricked but rather with gratitude for the gift of feigned wonder.
The New York Times Book Review
“[Balances] a moving story of familial and romantic love on a deliberately unsteady fictional edifice . . . [an] exuberant chimera of a novel.”—The New Yorker
“Splendidly devious.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Wily and witty . . . an engrossing family saga [with] sparkling and imaginative prose. Shakespeare would applaud a man who does him so proud.”—The Boston Globe
“Arthur Phillips has found the perfect vehicle for his cerebral talents: his ingenuity; his bright, elastic prose; and, most notably, his penchant for pastiche—for pouring his copious literary gifts into old vessels and reinventing familiar genres.”—The New York Times
“Devious and exhilarating . . . an irresistible family drama bundled into an exploration of fraud and authenticity.”—The Wall Street Journal
“A circus of a novel, full of wit, pathos and irrepressible intelligence.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“The story of a family that is Shakespearean in several senses . . . [The Tragedy of Arthur] contains literary echoes of Nabokov, Stoppard and even . . . Thomas Pynchon.”—San Francisco Chronicle