Thursday, August 4, 2011

SPL Shelf Life [adult]

This review appeared in the Stratford Gazette on August 4th. Written by Shauna Thomas, Librarian.

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips
@SPL: FIC Phill

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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