The Tragedy of Arthur

By Arthur Phillips

Random House. 384 pp. $26

nolead ends nolead begins


Reviewed by Rhonda Dickey


Late in

The Tragedy of Arthur

, the King Arthur character laments: "I am no author of my history." But who

is

the author of his history?

That's the big question in this ambitious, funny skewering of memoirs, literary experts, Shakespeare theories, hunts for provenance, and human foibles throughout the ages.

The premise: The narrator, a fictional character named Arthur Phillips, is furiously trying to prevent the publication of a heretofore unknown Shakespeare play, The Tragedy of Arthur, a 1597 quarto edition of which he himself had offered to his publisher. The King Arthur play had "been in the family," so to speak, since the day in 1975, between prison terms, when their father let his 11-year-old twins Arthur and Dana in on a secret: He had a 1904 edition of a "Shakespearean oddity, a play that people argued about" - The Tragedy of Arthur.

The creator of these several fictional Arthurs is the real Arthur Phillips. His earlier novels include Prague and The Egyptologist, about a 1920s archaeological expedition gone wildly wrong. His fictional main character in The Tragedy of Arthur shares his name and many of the same biographical details (childhood in Minneapolis, education at Harvard, writer of novels).

The Tragedy of Arthur, the play, has all the hallmarks of an elaborate hoax - narrator Arthur finds not a word about it online - but who is the hoax's author? It could be the father, a con man and ex-con and a genius at constructing schemes (though not perfect, since he got caught). It could be Arthur himself, whose relationship with his father is fraught with guilt and anger - and who, too late, tries to quash the play's publication. Or did this play, whoever wrote it (maybe even Shakespeare himself), really emerge from the Elizabethan period, as many experts are willing to attest?

It's icing on this cake of non-facts that Shakespeare himself inspired a cottage industry of people who contend that he was a forgery and Marlowe or someone else deserves the credit for the canon.

The book is structured as a very long introduction that details Arthur Phillips' case for why he was had by his own father, also named Arthur Phillips, and why the publisher should cancel the play's publication. The introduction is followed by the play itself, with dueling footnotes from a skeptical Phillips and a wholly persuaded scholar.

Shakespeare has been the one real division between Arthur and Dana, the Minnesota twins. For Dana, the playwright is a consuming passion and her great bond with her adored father. Arthur's first sentence to the reader is: "I have never much liked Shakespeare." The Bard and his shortcomings encapsulate all the quarrels Arthur has with his father.

Dad himself is a failed artist who has turned to fraud:

"For my twelfth birthday, when I was deep in an espionage fetish, he made me a high-quality Soviet passport, with my stern photo expertly installed behind Cyrillic seals and visa stamps showing my travels to North Korea, Vietnam, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia." Then, later, "he gave Dana a sweet-sixteen present: a 'consolation' driver's license after she failed the exam twice."

The Tragedy of Arthur is ingeniously plotted, but it's also beautifully written. As Phillips constructs this fiendishly complex puzzle, he keeps the focus on the real puzzle: What motivates people, especially when family, money, and reputation are involved?

Even narrator Arthur Phillips, the constant revisionist of his memoir, acknowledges how often his judgment had been clouded by anger or lust.

The novel's "Arthurs" are fantastical and vivid, but its more prosaic characters also are drawn with real empathy and nuance. Arthur shows his twin, his other self, Dana, as his better self. Despite his often lousy judgment about so many things, we believe him about Dana.

About all the other things? Well, the evidence is a little ambiguous.

Rhonda Dickey is an Inquirer editor. Contact her at 215-854-2381 or rdickey@phillynews.com.