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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips

The Tragedy of Arthur is complicated.  It's about a character named ... Arthur Phillips, a writer and the son of a conman, struggling with his relationship to his father who may have forged an entire Shakespearean play called ... The Tragedy of Arthur.  The first half of the novel purports to be the introduction to the high-profile release of the play, and the second half is the play itself -- an actual, five-act Elizabethan-style play about King Arthur, a downright enjoyable pastiche that at its best captures the feel and wit of Shakespeare.

So how similar are Fictional Arthur and Real Arthur?  They've written the same books, lived in the same places, had some of the same experiences.  The events of the novel are true, except where they are not.  But the fictional Arthur is an unreliable narrator, and as his "introduction" progresses, he admits he may have made things up, or embellished them, or maybe told them straight.  This ambiguity fits in with the story of the play itself -- it sure seems likely, given his father's past, that the play is a fake, but it seems just as likely that it would have been impossible to pull it off.

But then, that's not the point of the novel.  It's about fathers and sons, and the interplay between creation and deception, fiction and fraud.  Arthur's father justifies his crimes because he created something and brought wonder to the world.  If he has to fudge a bit, pretend the painting is by someone famous, that the crop circles were made by aliens, that just enhances the creation and makes it more likely that people would enjoy it.  He would not agree that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

His father is blind to a crucial point, however.  In the Catholic blogosphere there has been a lot of debate recently about whether it is ever permissible to lie, even for the best of reasons.  A common retort by those who advocate lying is that fiction is lying too, and are we going to accuse every writer and actor of sinning? The difference, of course, is that people watching a play or reading a novel consent to the "lie" -- they know coming in that it's all made up.  That's what the father doesn't see (or is willfully blind to), that his "clients" are really victims, who are expecting not only wonder and creation but also authenticity.  They don't know that what he's doing is made up.

We, on the other hand, know that this book is a novel; it even says "fiction" on the back over the barcode.  So it doesn't really matter if Fictional Arthur's denouement is "true," or how much of his life story is that of Real Arthur's.  Fittingly enough, that also turns out to be the resolution of the play's authorship mystery -- Fictional Arthur uses the introduction to present his father's character and give his reasons for believing the play is a fraud, but he allows his sister to explain why she believes it is legitimate, and he dutifully puts forth the results of all the tests by linguists, scholars, and scientists.  The play is published with this introduction, and people can choose to believe in it or not, or just suspend belief entirely and go along for the ride.  And what a ride it is.

A word about the cover of my edition.  What better image to represent an intricate, "devious," post-modern "tour de force" about writers and frauds than that of two adorable blond tots playing dress-up on a beach, gauzy white light illuminating their cherubic faces?  I have a sneaking suspicion that this cover was picked out of a misguided attempt to snag more women readers.  I'd be offended, but it's just so silly.


  1. After reading Arthur, i had the opportunity to hear the author speak. This book reads like a rich description of real events. But some of it is real and some isn't. Wonderful book!
    AC Repair Plano

  2. Cool! What did he speak on? Did he say anything about his books?