The novelist Arthur Phillips had me when the character Arthur Phillips mentioned the Minneapolis Star back when Minneapolis was a two-paper town. I have no idea why this small bit of Minnesota trivia charmed me so much, but it did.
That’s probably the last coherent and concrete thing I’m going to say about Phillips’ brilliant new novel The Tragedy of Arthur. Fasten your seat belts MN Readers, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.
First there are three characters named Arthur here. Two of which are named Arthur Phillips just like the author. One is King Arthur the main character in a recently discovered Shakespeare play called “The Most Excellent and Tragical Historie of Arthur, King of Britain.”
Fictional Arthur Phillips, who just happens to be a novelist of such books as Prague, The Egyptologist and (my personal favorite) The Song is You, is given a quarto of this Shakespeare play by his father. Allegedly the play was found by the Senior Arthur in the personal library of some shady London art collector.
Senior Arthur tasks Younger Arthur with getting the play verified by Shakespearologists and other experts. Once they have authenticated that the play is written by ol’ Willie himself, they’re in the money.
But it’s not as easy as all that. See, Senior Arthur has a long history of being a conman and a forger. In fact, he spends most of his time in and out of prison for his petty misdeeds (faking coupons and forging lottery tickets). Plus, there’s a heaping helping of dad/son bullshit whereby Young Arthur believes its his twin sister, Dana, who is the apple of Senior Arthur’s eye.
So you got all that? Okay.
Now the novel The Tragedy of Arthur is supposed to be the publication of this newfound Shakespeare play with an introduction by Arthur Phillips about the play, its importance, and how it came into his possession. Oh my, that introduction is some kind of awesome. Instead of simply providing an essay on the play, the fictional Young Arthur turns it into a memoir that encompasses his entire life. From his early jealousy of the special bond twin Dana has with their dad over Shakespeare to his unhappy marriage to a Czech to his anger at Dad for being a fraud.
Oh and there’s a crapton of Shakespeare stuff too — most of it fascinating even to someone like me who has read three Shakespeare plays in her entire life (“Romeo & Juliet,” “Julius Ceaser,” and “Macbeth.” I blame this on the fact that I didn’t major in English. However, I’ve read The Federalist Papers three times because that’s what PoliSci majors do). I have to admit I kind of loved the Shakespeare stuff — the theories and the controversies — my brain couldn’t get enough.
Really, the whole fucking book is just so damn fascinating and clever and fabulous that I will not be able to do it justice. There’s just so much to love — the sibling relationship, Arthur’s Oedipal struggles (with William and Senior Arthur), the weird self-consciousness of writing a memoir, the Minnesota-y-ness (at one point teenage Arthur and his sister Dana are going to the Uptown and she’s wearing a Suburbs shirt), and the mystery around the authorship of the play.
Oh and the play’s included in the book too, after the introduction. Yeah, Arthur Phillips (the real one) wrote a Shakespeare play and the best part of it (see: not a Shakespeare reader above) is the petty bickering fictional Arthur engages in with a Shakespearologist in the footnotes. At one point Arthur makes a crack about how some line reminds him of his father’s love for Harold and the Purple Crayon.
I know it sounds kind of confusing with Arthurs everywhere and fake plays and the whole conceit that we’re supposed to believe that the novel we’re reading is the actual Arthur’s introduction to an actual found Shakespeare play. Its all very meta.
But it’s not confusing when you’re knee deep into this delicious mind-bendy book.