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 reviewer 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In this delightful novel, the author Arthur Phillips is writing the introduction to newly found unpublished work of Shakespeare.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.