A long-lost Shakespeare play (or is it?) brings pain to the bearer in the inventive, twisted fifth novel from Arthur Phillips, author of The Egyptologist and The Song Is You. As a fictional memoir stuffed into a scholarly frame, it wriggles out of its own dead end; it’s thought-provoking without laboring toward its greater point.
The narrator of The Tragedy Of Arthur, also named Arthur Phillips, has assigned himself the task of writing an introduction to the first published edition of a lost Shakespeare play called The Tragedy Of Arthur. As it goes to press, Arthur has ample reason to doubt that the play in his possession is authentic: He grew up with a con-artist father who regularly involved Arthur and his twin sister Dana in his criminal activities. Love of the Bard led Dana into acting, while Arthur cut ties with his father and became a novelist; initially invigorated by the prospect of the lost work, he forms his doubts too late to renege on his publishing contract. The major concession he wrests from his editors is the ability to publish his essay unedited; this synopsis as pretext for memoir and admission of guilt leads him directly into the text of the play (which comprises about a third of the novel), with his dissenting notes contradicted in subsequent footnotes by a Shakespeare expert.
Encasing his thriller about origin in its own confusion of authorship, Phillips relies on his narrator to invest what might seem like an exquisite prank with the resentment and trauma of not knowing how to handle its consequences. Arthur declares himself brazen and unflinching as he hurtles toward the truth, but he’s only half-right, and when he reaches a transgression he doesn’t want to confess, The Tragedy Of Arthur loses its narrative steam: The little anguish he shows isn’t as compelling as the motives behind the confession, and it distracts from the essential mystery, whose conclusion isn’t that surprising.
That said, The Tragedy Of Arthur deliberately folds in on itself so many times, it’s impossible to fault Arthur’s conclusion for coming into view well before it’s made explicit. In pushing readers toward the text itself—a co-mingling of the histories with a pinch of Macbeth, featuring an illegitimate king defending his throne against the Picts—Phillips leaves his narrator at a crossroads, but with the sleight-of-hand to anchor it in Arthur’s original seeds of doubt. Even as The Tragedy Of Arthur ducks and weaves around delivering answers, it’s a fascinating postmodern puzzle.