Saturday, April 30, 2011

Book Review - The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips

By Cody Daigle

It's tough to imagine a more entertaining riff on the "Shakespeare didn't write the plays" motif than "The Tragedy of Arthur."

Phillip's "Arthur" is really two books -- a lost script of William Shakespeare and a lengthy introduction to that script by its excavator (an introduction that is really a "memoir" of a con-man father and a writer son longing for his father's approval) -- framed by a clever conceit that blends literary smarts and frat boy mischief.

The Phillips writing the book (a fictional version of the real author) has uncovered a lost Shakespeare tragedy about the life of King Arthur. It was given to him by his father, who claims to have stolen the text from a rich man's library.

The problem? The father's got a long record of convictions for cons -- frauds of all sorts, including a fake crop circle incident that young Arthur takes part in.

Is the play for real? Is it another of the father's forgeries? Has young Arthur penned it himself in an attempt to give his father's life of conning some value?

The answer is really beside the point. What's lovely here is Phillips' loose and unexpectedly charming writing, which is as elastic and buoyant as anything I've read recently. While he clearly delights in the twisting conceit that frames the book, Phillips digs down deep into a child's struggle to connect to a parent he both loves and abhors. Joy and disappointment do a constant dance throughout "Arthur -- much as it does throughout Shakespeare's plays -- and it makes for some lovely reading. The writing is warm, funny, and fresh, and Phillips captures a child's struggle to figure out the truth of his parents -- are they the perfect heroes or just the imperfect fools? -- in a sharp and emotionally satisfying way.

In considering the constantly changing face of his con-man father, Phillips makes an interesting case for the truth being, in the end, irrelevant: does it matter if something is real when it makes us feel a sense of wonder? (Those Shakespeare conspiracists should take note and stop spoiling the fun.)

Things get a little less successful once you dive into the "lost" play itself. Phillips is a brave writer to tackle the notion of a lost Shakespeare, and he succeeds in parts. But too often, the writing falls a bit flat and feels so obviously un-Shakespearean that it's tough to buy into the conceit that anyone believed its authenticity.

But maybe that's the point. The play might be as false as the elder Arthur's many cons that sent him to jail, but the truth isn't what counts. What counts is the pursuit of wonder, and if it takes a forged Shakespeare (and a lifetime of learning to love a con-man) to find that wonder, who needs the truth anyway?

No comments: