Is the novel tragical-comical, comical-tragical or both?
There may be some who will be taken in by this clever, but predictable literary sleight of hand by the novelist Arthur Phillips, author of "The Song Is You."
Those who know even slightly the 400-year-old debate about who wrote the plays of Shakespeare (most likely Shakespeare) and the passions surrounding the Bard of Avon, however, will quickly see through Mr. Phillips' novel masquerading as nonfiction.
As a meta-novel, "The Tragedy of Arthur" is packed with real-life references including the novelist's literary agent, Marly Rusoff, several Shakespeare scholars and staffers at Random House.
The novel is written as the introduction to a "rediscovered" play by Shakespeare called "The Tragedy of Arthur," which falls into fictional character (and novelist) Arthur Phillips' hands. He takes it to Random House where several experts vouch for its authenticity and Mr. Phillips is charged with writing the lead-in to the play.
There's money and fame to be made.
The "play," clearly written by the real Mr. Phillips, appears at the end and is so obviously a fraud that I'm not sure who's kidding whom. The hilarious "Beyond the Fringe" skit, "So That's the Way You Like It," seems more genuine than Mr. Phillips' dull parody.
I have to believe that the author is satirizing so-called Shakespeare "experts" who are so eager to seize on anything new about the playwright that they are easily fooled. That subject could be the material for a humorous novel, but that's not what this novel is really about.
The real tragedy of Arthur is the character's troubled and unsatisfying relationships with his father and his twin sister, Dana. Arthur would have a twin, of course, since Shakespeare loved to use them in his comedies.
Dana loves the Bard and her father, also named Arthur Phillips; Arthur the younger wants to have as little as possible to do with either.
His father is a criminal who spends most of the novel in jail for forgery and fraud. Yet when he delivers this "lost" Shakespeare play to his son as a gift of forgiveness, it's hailed as a great discovery even though it's got "phony" written all over it.
In the end, the only way Arthur the father can tell his son that he loves him is to give him a fake. It's a tragedy as bitter as "King Lear."
To his credit, Arthur the novelist writes with a confidence and insidious knowledge of Shakespeare, sliding in references again and again to the plays. His novel is a puzzle, a parody and finally, a tragedy of unrealized love.
"My mother was a victim of my father's inability to be empathetic to the living," the fictional Arthur says. "I am another one of his victims and yet I have in turn treated my children and wife and sister no better. ... All my empathy has gone into trying to understand fictional characters, fantasies of my own making."
That's one of the hazards of being a novelist, real or fictional.
First Published June 5, 2011 12:00 am