The Tragedy of Arthur

The Short Version: Arthur Phillips uses the ‘introduction’ to the first major printing of a heretofore undiscovered Shakespeare to tell the story of how this play came to be and, in the telling, ends up telling most of his life’s story.  Turns out his dad was a conman and that this play might be his greatest con.  Along the way, he manages to alienate his twin sister (and get her girlfriend pregnant), barely patch up his relationship with the jailbird father before his death, and nearly cock up his literary career for good.

The Review:  God damn it, what an interminable book.  The novel itself is 250 pages long, the play another ~120.  I will address the play first, having just seen the world premiere reading of it by the Guerrilla Shakespeare Project: the play is certainly interesting.  It has its moments, that’s for sure – but it is also (as I think it is best captured by the brief summary of a minor character in the novel, I think his name was Tom) most definitely not Shakespeare.  It doesn’t have his unique fingerprint.  It does not move like his work.  You can say what you want about the man from Stratford but when you compare his work to the work of the other surviving Elizabethan/Jacobean playwrights, his work is unique.  It has, yes, a fingerprint that is inimitable.  Arthur Phillips does a decent job at pastiche but cannot hold a candle to the confluence of imagination and chutzpah that Shakespeare whipped up.

Now onto the novel.  How a novel so short can irritate me so much, I am not entirely sure.  I can tell you, however, that it sure did irritate me.  Hoo-boy.

The novel is, as John Warner might call it, a “white male fuck-up novel” when all is said and done.  Arthur Phillips is a (nominally) Jewish white male from Minnesota who, you guessed it, fucks up his life.  The play is simply the catalyst – but that might even be too generous.  It is the MacGuffin to this plot – because really, the play doesn’t matter.  Phillips himself makes this point a number of times, before going back on himself and vacillating yet again.  Phillips had a shitty relationship with his father – he felt betrayed by his father and, as so often happens, that can mess up a young man for good.  He manages to keep an even-ish keel, though, thanks to his twin sister Dana.  They are the best kind of siblings – always having each other’s backs, always keeping each other honest.  I liked this about them.

I even tolerated the ridiculous conceit (really, even having a brand new Shakespeare would not guarantee an author free reign to write whatever the hell he pleased in the introduction.  A publishing house will have lawyers and they will make sure they get to do at least some kind of editing) that forced me to endure over 140 pages of Arthur’s childhood and his adolescence and his finding-himself time and his dislike for Shakespeare as a child.  Just write the damn biography – or fake biography, as this appears to be – and leave out the meta “oh, but I’m supposed to be using this time to talk about the play!” bullshit.  It just makes you seem like you think you’re hot stuff, Mr. Phillips, but in an “emperor’s got no clothes” kind of way.  I endured this because I liked the relationship between Arthur and Dana.  They were quirky, their family was quirky – it wasn’t the sort of quirk I expected (I would’ve picked up that other book, the name of which escapes me at the moment, that came out this year about a family obsessed with Shakespeare) but it was an enjoyable and real kind of quirk, so I went with it.

Phillips really started to lose me around the time Arthur drunkenly loses a bet with his sister in a bar one night and ends up getting “Arthur Rex” tattooed on his penis.  Yep, you heard me right – and apparently while it was erect.  The absolute ridiculousness of this moment very nearly led me to toss the book into a corner where it would never be heard from again.  It was unnecessary and just bloody stupid – not to mention more than a little unrealistic (I don’t care HOW drunk, a guy like Arthur – the Arthur we’ve been introduced to thus far – isn’t going to let that actually happen).  Also, it just completely disappears from the book after a page.  Despite the sex that happens throughout the rest of the book.  Um.  Really?

SPOILERS DO FOLLOW because I can’t talk about how idiotic the rest of the book is without bringing up spoilers.  The book rapidly speeds downhill, picking up speed and knocking out signposts to reality rather willy-nilly.  Dana’s lesbian girlfriend?  Sure, Arthur falls in love at first sight – and then gets her pregnant!  Arthur comes to believe his father about the play, despite years of reasons why he SHOULDN’T, and then turns on a dime with his father’s body basically still warm because he found an illegible index card!  Dana fakes her death to get Arthur’s attention or something and then, along with her mother and Petra (the girlfriend) convince Arthur to undertake a year completely out of contact with them (yes, this is pulled directly from Love’s Labour’s Lost.  yes, it feels as labored and ridiculous and false as you think it will)!  The play turns out to maybe have been real because so far most critics and scientific tests say “it isn’t NOT real” and therefore it must be real!

Arthur Phillips (the author and the character – I cannot separate them, having never read any of Phillips’ other work) is also, as it turns out, a pretty mediocre writer.  How he managed to cook up some of the moments of the “Shakespeare” play, I’ll never know – because a few of them are quite lovely.  HIs dialogue is flat, his attempts to be the smartest guy in the room (talking about what Shakespeare means and addressing the idea that we owe him too much and oh-my-god-how-hipster…… turns out he lives in Brooklyn and, I’m sorry to say it, but I’m not surprised.  seriously, the hipster “I’m too cool” attitude is all over this book) are cloying at best and idiotic at worst, his narrative device is interesting for about a half-second before you realize how unrealistic it is – and then you start to realize how ramblingly and poorly written it is and you have to ask yourself: “This guy – the character and the author – has written four other novels, which all did pretty well?  HOW?”

Rating: 1 out of 5 for the “novel” – but it gets an extra star for the play because, well, it takes balls to pastiche Shakespeare and Phillips manages to do a half-decent job.  Stunning, considering the rest of the book goes from mediocre family-life tale to hackneyed, overcooked plot devices with one-dimensional characters in the space of about 200 pages.  I wanted this book to be so much more than it was – it could’ve had a lot to say about Shakespeare but everything, even the good & intelligent bits, are overshadowed by the fact that, as I read the last page of the novel, I was heard to say aloud “you have got to be fucking kidding me.”  That’s a line of iambic pentameter, by the way (with a possible trochee at the first foot).  So there, maybe it isn’t so hard.


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