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THE TRAGEDY OF ARTHUR by Arthur Phillips Kirkus Star


by Arthur Phillips

Pub Date: April 19th, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6647-6
Publisher: Random House

Novelist Phillips (The Song is You, 2009, etc.) introduces a long-lost Shakespeare play, the titular Tragedy. This extraordinary find…

No, wait. Something’s wrong here. How come the introduction is more than twice as long as the play? Why are the editors, in their preface, urging us to read the play directly while bypassing the introduction? And why would Phillips say of the play, “It is bad. Don’t read it”? It’s all a game, of course. Ignore those editors. Read the convoluted introduction, and you’ll find it’s Phillips’s fifth novel, masquerading as autobiography. Young Arthur, named for his dad, grew up in 1960s Minneapolis with his twin sister Dana, his beloved soul mate. The kids were in awe of their father, the inspiration for this novel. He was a wonder worker, a maker of miracles. Too bad he was also a forger who would spend years in prison. One more thing: He was an ardent Shakespearean. Dana inherited his love of the plays; Arthur didn’t. The first, rambling half of the novel covers Arthur’s adolescence and adulthood and his years as a successful expatriate writer in Prague, married to a Czech. The plot kicks in late. Arthur, back stateside, is given an assignment by his dying dad. There’s a lost Shakespeare play in a safe-deposit box. Arthur must use his credibility as a writer to get it published. The ploy works. Scholars authenticate the work. Only Arthur, to his dismay, realizes too late that it’s a fake. There follows a fight between Arthur, trying to prevent publication but by now contractually bound, and his publisher, using all its corporate muscle. There’s also a nifty subplot involving Dana, who’s gay, her sweetheart, and dastardly behavior by Arthur, all of this linked to the play’s publication. After the hijinks, the play is an anticlimax, a decent enough pastiche about martial prowess and a less-than-martial king.

A literary lark, at times too labored, that offers an amusing gloss on the publishing industry’s recent problems with fakes.