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The Tragedy of Arthur

A Novel

Phillips, Arthur, 1969-

(Book - 2011)
Average Rating: 3 stars out of 5.
The Tragedy of Arthur
Print
When their long-imprisoned con-artist father reaches the end of his life, Arthur and his twin sister become the owners of an undiscovered play by William Shakespeare that their father wants published, a final request that represents either a great literary gift or their father's last great heist.
Publisher: New York : Random House, c2011
Edition: 1st ed
ISBN: 9781400066476
1400066476
Branch Call Number: FIC P
Characteristics: ix, 368 p. ; 24 cm.

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Sep 30, 2011
  • Melbergo rated this: 5 stars out of 5.

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips is an amazing piece of FICTION. It is important that you be reminded that this is FICTION. As one review wrote, “Phillips mocks memoir writing while writing a memoir, though this memoir, about himself” and it is pure FICTION!

In this delightful novel, the author Arthur Phillips is writing the introduction to newly found unpublished work of Shakespeare. This work had been "found" by his father and gifted to Arthur who then works a deal with Random House and is allowed to write the scholarly introduction (you know the first fifty pages that you usually skip because it seems all heady and intellectual and references things you know about little and care about less.) Because his father has spent most of Arthur’s life in prison for forgery and con jobs, the gift is suspect. Arthur and his sister have played a role in his father’s cons before (creating a crop circle for example) and one would think that they would question whether or not they were being used once again. There are other wonderful characters of course, Dana, Arthur’s bipolar lesbian twin, Petra, the girlfriend, the mom, and the stepfather.
This plot is so multilayered, it is hard to review. On the surface, we have twins who each developed a relationship with their con making, forgery loving, often residing in prison father. The mother of the two makes occasional, but powerful appearances when she has the audacity to talk to her grown children not just as their mother, but as a confused ex-wife as well. (I honestly would have any of these characters over for dinner. Although this work is a piece of FICTION, I keep thinking that maybe they exist somewhere and could have tea with me some time!)
As readers, we ponder the idea that since Arthur and his dad share the same name, The Tragedy of Arthur is not only the name of the lost Shakespearean play, but refers to the missed opportunities of the son and father as well. At one point the son Arthur thinks “Why doesn’t he understand that his behavior affects my happiness and that I am ashamed and angry and embarrassed and confused about what it means to be a man and a father as a result?” He states there is no forgiveness without an apology first, and even then apology and forgiveness is just a compact of shared weakness. His sister then responds, “No, it’s strengthening, I think. Forgiving him means you don’t need him to help you be you anymore.” And there lies the moral of the story. We only need to believe in ourselves.
This book is another perfect example of the middle age male crisis plots that I love so much. (Is there such a thing as a Change of Life genre?) What to do with your life, once you realize that you may have become exactly what you were meant to become and there is still a void and there is still time left? I would recommend this book to anyone. If you are a fan of Shakespeare, I think the literary allusions would be more meaningful, but having never read any Shakespeare, (yes, including Romeo and Juliet, and no seeing the movie doesn’t count) I did just fine. Also, reading of how a newly found unpublished work is authenticated was fascinating.

Aug 18, 2011
  • bibliofinn rated this: 2 stars out of 5.

Full marks for audacity, but despite occasional flashes of brilliance, the prose plods along. The ideas are stimulating and ultra-brainy, but are let down by pedestrian style.

Aug 11, 2011
  • ksoles rated this: 3 stars out of 5.

Why does a million-dollar work of art become valueless when some expert exposes it as a forgery? What differentiates "real" from "fake"? How does one prove authorship?

Arthur Phillips' newest novel blurs, or rather obliterates, the boundary between appearance and reality. The author's protagonist, also named Arthur Phillips, and his twin sister, Dana, have suffered unstable childhoods largely thanks to their con-man father (yes, also named Arthur Phillips), who spends most of the novel in jail. On his death bed, he produces his most prized possession: a lost Shakespearean manuscript. In what turns into a faux-memoir-meets-academic-introduction-to-Shakespeare-play, the protagonist seesaws between avowing "The Tragedy of Arthur"'s authenticity and mourning its fallaciousness. In the meantime, a media frenzy brews over the historical sensation of the century: a new work by the bard.

The 250 page "novel" culminates in a "Shakespeare" play written by Phillips. Or did Shakespeare actually write it? This pastiche evokes great admiration for the novelist's cleverness, skill and erudition but, unfortunately, after a few initial pages of engrossment, the book emerges as a crashing bore. It definitely provokes thought but it over-emphasizes the theme of illusion; any emotion the prose conjures seems specious and leaves the reader feeling cold.

Aug 02, 2011
  • AnneDromeda rated this: 4.5 stars out of 5.

Hipster-lit author Arthur Phillips (*The Song is You*, *Prague*) has spent the last decade being lauded for his dark sense of humour and high-brow blend of indie- and pop-culture sensibilities. His new offering, *The Tragedy of Arthur,* takes his usual media-savvy modus operandi to a new level.
<br />

*The Tragedy of Arthur* isn't formatted as a novel. Rather, it takes the form of a 1st modern edition of a lost Shakespeare play. Phillips carries this conceit to great lengths: The book opens with a pitch-perfect scholarly preface from Random House declaring their excitement at being the first to publish this historic lost work; it ends with a complete edition of Shakespeare's *The Tragedy of Arthur*. The rest of the book – the bulk of it, really – is Phillips' memoir of how the play materialized in his family and came to be published at all.
<br />

Raised in a middle class, middle-American family, twins Arthur and Dana Phillips' childhood defies their perfectly average surroundings, courtesy of a father dedicated to fabricating wonder. Sadly, the dark side of their father's artistic wonder-weaving expresses itself in a tendency to create fraudulent documentation for friends in low places. Soon enough, the senior Arthur faces long-term incarceration.
<br />

So when Arthur Sr presents Dana and Arthur Jr with an apparently-genuine 1597 edition of a lost Shakespeare play entitled *The Tragedy of Arthur*, both siblings are torn between a desire to embrace this latest paternal wonder, and nagging doubts about the play's authenticity. The scientific and emotional evidence mounts for both conclusions, as the introduction/memoir portion of the novel lurches to a close through the many minor tragedies of a truly dysfunctional family.
<br />

No one's behaviour reveals to the reader whether the lost Shakespeare play could be the real thing. And because of that, Phillips will achieve what was impossible for many high school English teachers: legions of readers of popular literary fiction will read an entire Shakespeare play – well, an entire play maybe by Shakespeare – just to see if they can tell for themselves. Either way, they'll have a good time reading the play's explanatory footnotes, which reveal an entertainingly snarky battle between Arthur Phillips and a Shakespearean scholar over the play's authenticity.
<br />

At the end of the day, we've catalogued the book as fiction, and it's subtitle is *A Novel*. So it can't be for real, right? There's just enough doubt left out there - seriously, ask Google - that the true believers could be forgiven for going ahead and wishing Shakespeare into the quill. For those others who manage to keep their jaded wits about them through to the end of Phillips' wondrous illusion, *The Tragedy of Arthur* will raise complicated questions about the intersection of authorship, storytelling and reality that linger long after they think they've closed the book on it.

Jun 03, 2011
  • Peregrine rated this: 3 stars out of 5.

A complex, layered tale of three Arthurs - the narrator, his father, and the ancient British king. Arthur, the narrator, has a difficult relationship with his father, a skilled forger, and when his father's final gift to him is a lost Shakespeare play called the Tragedy of Arthur, he can't believe it's real - especially because it is his twin sister Dana who loves Shakespeare, not him. Beautifully written, though at times I needed to put aside. At my age, I have enough regrets of my own and found it wearying to wallow in Arthur's (the narrator).

"Easily one of the most-heralded novels of the season, and deservedly so. Indeed, its achievement surpasses a merely entertaining academic romp. In bright and rangy prose, and endlessly playing on some of Shakespeare’s recurrent motifs and themes – succession anxieties, mistaken identities, appeals for vengeance and mercy, the interlocking of concealment and exposure, the mirroring of promise and betrayal – the novel is far more a funny, often moving autobiography of a serial forger’s ambivalence-filled son, which becomes in turn a middle-aged writer’s stocktaking of his own family life and career and long-standing, hateful relationship to Shakespeare, only then to transform into a riveting take on the publishing industry’s appetites for buzz books and its matching anxieties about big disappointments."
Randy Boyagoda
Globe & Mail May 27 2011

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Aug 02, 2011
  • AnneDromeda rated this: 4.5 stars out of 5.

Hipster-lit author Arthur Phillips (*The Song is You*, *Prague*) has spent the last decade being lauded for his dark sense of humour and high-brow blend of indie- and pop-culture sensibilities. His new offering, *The Tragedy of Arthur,* takes his usual media-savvy modus operandi to a new level.
<br />

*The Tragedy of Arthur* isn't formatted as a novel. Rather, it takes the form of a 1st modern edition of a lost Shakespeare play. Phillips carries this conceit to great lengths: The book opens with a pitch-perfect scholarly preface from Random House declaring their excitement at being the first to publish this historic lost work; it ends with a complete edition of Shakespeare's *The Tragedy of Arthur*. The rest of the book – the bulk of it, really – is Phillips' memoir of how the play materialized in his family and came to be published at all.
<br />

Raised in a middle class, middle-American family, twins Arthur and Dana Phillips' childhood defies their perfectly average surroundings, courtesy of a father dedicated to fabricating wonder. Sadly, the dark side of their father's artistic wonder-weaving expresses itself in a tendency to create fraudulent documentation for friends in low places. Soon enough, the senior Arthur faces long-term incarceration.
<br />

So when Arthur Sr presents Dana and Arthur Jr with an apparently-genuine 1597 edition of a lost Shakespeare play entitled *The Tragedy of Arthur*, both siblings are torn between a desire to embrace this latest paternal wonder, and nagging doubts about the play's authenticity. The scientific and emotional evidence mounts for both conclusions, as the introduction/memoir portion of the novel lurches to a close through the many minor tragedies of a truly dysfunctional family.
<br />

No one's behaviour reveals to the reader whether the lost Shakespeare play could be the real thing. And because of that, Phillips will achieve what was impossible for many high school English teachers: legions of readers of popular literary fiction will read an entire Shakespeare play – well, an entire play maybe by Shakespeare – just to see if they can tell for themselves. Either way, they'll have a good time reading the play's explanatory footnotes, which reveal an entertainingly snarky battle between Arthur Phillips and a Shakespearean scholar over the play's authenticity.
<br />

At the end of the day, we've catalogued the book as fiction, and it's subtitle is *A Novel*. So it can't be for real, right? There's just enough doubt left out there - seriously, ask Google - that the true believers could be forgiven for going ahead and wishing Shakespeare into the quill. For those others who manage to keep their jaded wits about them through to the end of Phillips' wondrous illusion, *The Tragedy of Arthur* will raise complicated questions about the intersection of authorship, storytelling and reality that linger long after they think they've closed the book on it.

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