LITERATURE MAY 24, 2011
by Arthur Phillips
Random House, 384 pp., $26
THE AMOUNT OF research in Arthur Phillips’s new novel is alternately exhaustive and exhausting. Phillips’s earlier work The Egyptologist demanded of its author a convincing knowledge of archaeology, Egyptian history, and 1920s slang, while Angelica (2007) included thorough studies of ghost stories and Victoriana. In The Tragedy of Arthur, Phillips outdoes himself with a conceit that requires nothing less than a “newly discovered” play by Shakespeare, complete with authentic vocabulary, textual commentary from a fictional academic, and an accompanying introduction that morphs into a faux memoir. The memoir is an explanation of exactly how the protagonist—an author named Arthur Phillips—came upon this implausible find, through the brilliant machinations of his idealistic yet criminal father, a master forger.
Although he moves from pyramid-based mystery romp to gothic Freudian bone-chiller to modern romance, in all of Phillips’s novels there are apparently inescapable tropes that return again and again. There are always elaborate, verbally dexterous, riddling games being played, both between characters and between author and reader. The unreliable narrator is a constant in Phillips’s work. In The Egyptologist, it takes the form of a crazed, self-made academic whose entire career may be based on elaborate, well-informed trickery, entirely imagined pharaohs, and even murderous cover-ups. In Angelica, there are three separate narrators offering their versions of the same events. The plot can be read as a feminist ghost story, as the history of a good man undone by a bad choice, or as the tale of a child buffeted between warring parents, a precocious innocent out of What Maisie Knew.
Even in the least intricate of Phillips’s novels, The Song is You, word games and vaunted cleverness abound. That novel is an account of a year in a man’s life as he attempts to forget the wreckage of his first marriage and fall in love again. The love story, in which this pop-literate bereaved New Yorker pursues a young Irish singer, is conducted through the leaving of coded messages, of ambiguous cartoons, of assumed identities and persistent private detectives. Yet despite the self-conscious cleverness of The Song is You, the form and setting—present day Manhattan—feel deeply uncomfortable for Phillips. He is most at ease when engaging in pastiche, when conjuring outmoded literary styles or different centuries. It is for this reason that Angelica, his Victorian psychological horror, and The Egyptologist, set in the ’20s at the height of Pharoah frenzy, work best.
The slightly uneasy combination of gifted Shakespearian pastiche and modern neuroticism is what troubles The Tragedy of Arthur. The concept that Phillips has constructed is an undoubtedly original one. The memoir and the footnotes of the play are narrated by an alter ego who shares the bibliography and alma mater of the real life author, but with a distinctly different back-story. It involves a charming con-man father, imprisoned multiple times during the protagonist’s childhood, who either forges or discovers, depending on what the reader decides, an entirely new Shakespeare play.
Phillips’s relationships with his father and twin sister Dana—and the power dynamics within those relationships—form the emotional bulk of the memoir. The relationship with Dana gives Phillips the chance to create a modern riff on Shakespearean twins and all the gender-bending hijinks this entails. Dana is gay, and the adult twins are presented with both a bonding opportunity during nights spent pursuing women together, and later an emotionally wrenching love triangle, which reaches its crescendo just as the plot-line of the lost play is coming to the fore.
One of the most successful aspects of the memoir portion of the book is the conflation of Phillips’s errant, charming father with Shakespeare. The father reads the complete plays to his children from birth, and both men are creators of alternate realms for Phillips and his sister during their idyllic infancy. Subsequently both siblings attempt to escape from their father. Phillips does so by barely communicating with his parent and dismissing his character and abilities. Dana takes a more radical approach and becomes an anti-Stratfordian mostly to alienate her father, inventing a complex theory about there being two authors of the plays attributed to Shakespeare. Phillips discusses the theory in wackily diverting detail, peppering it with references to genuine anti-Statfordian scholars and contemporaneous playwrights, another example of the glee he takes in arcane factoids.
Phillips revels in the Daddy-related Shakespeare bashing from the first page. The narrator is utterly unconvinced, long before he becomes executor of The Tragedy of Arthur, of Shakespeare’s godlike genius. He is audaciously dismissive of the Bard in a way that may give former English Literature students an illicit thrill: “I should be glad of the few lines of his I like and think nothing of the rest, and ignore the daffy religion that is the world’s mad love of him.” Phillips’s willingness to poke fun at po-faced Bardolatry is hilarious and endearing, but alone it is not enough for the novel to succeed. This is in part because his play serves little purpose other than giving Phillips the opportunity to demonstrate a daring that is the pastiche equivalent of walking the New York skyline on a tightrope. No one can fault his audacity: the play is engaging, the vocabulary unfailingly authentic, and the vicious argument between a wry, unconvinced Phillips and a haughty academic that takes place in the footnotes is beautifully done. But ultimately the play feels like something of a chore, an interesting addendum that asks too much of the reader for too little in return.
A telling distinction which the fictional Phillips makes between himself and his father and sister is that both of his relatives are “author lovers.” It matters to Phillips Sr. and Dana that they know about “the person who had written the stories, books and plays [they] loved.” Perhaps this is a distinction which the real Arthur Phillips finds so interesting because he enjoys taking on the voices of towering figures in literature. Reviewers have compared him to James and Nabokov, flattering associations for any novelist. But the links are more concerned with subject than style: Phillips is not a brilliant writer. He is certainly witty and knowledgeable, but cleverness goes only so far, and one feels that Phillips has overreached here. Long stretches of this book read like mere excuses for such cleverness. If you are going to ask your audience to read an entire Shakespeare play you have conjured up, you need to offer more than flare and gimmickry.
Victoria Beale is a books and arts intern at The New Republic.