Arthur Phillips' "The Tragedy of Arthur" is a circus of a novel, full of wit, pathos and irrepressible intelligence. Yet its most impressive trick is tempting you to believe it's not a novel after all.
Perhaps a lost Shakespeare play has indeed been hidden for decades in a Minneapolis home. Maybe a genuine controversy roils over whether the Bard wrote it or whether it was a hoax concocted by Phillips' father. It could very well be that Phillips is emotionally undone from trying to sort it all out. This book rambles through so much new territory involving authorship and constructed realities that it sometimes feels like you'll need an emergency rescue team of DeLillo scholars to extract you.
Yet a novel it is, with a metafictional structure similar to that of Vladimir Nabokov's "Pale Fire." The novel proper is framed as an introduction to an alleged Shakespeare play about King Arthur. The Arthur Phillips who narrates the story disputes its authenticity: He's writing the introduction only because he's legally compelled to by Random House. The play's true author, he's sure, is his father, a forger who's spent much of his adult life in prison. Unsurprisingly, the Random House editors, in a pitch-perfect faux preface, recommend that "general readers plunge directly into the play."
Let the play wait: The main story is a rich commentary on manipulative memoirs, a lively survey of Shakespeare scholarship, and, most important, a compelling story about family that has its own Shakespearean shape. Phillips focuses on Arthur's relationship with his father, slowly revealing how his childhood resentments have informed his adult contempt. "The play is bad," Phillips insists. "It is bad. Don't read it." But how much is he acting on evidence, and how much is he determined to marginalize his absent dad?
Some romantic tussling in the novel's subplot -- he and his sister vie for the heart of the same woman -- feels contrived, and to say Shakespeare also wrote contrived subplots doesn't excuse Phillips. But the scorned, resentful doppelganger Phillips invents for himself is still convincing. As for the play itself, the scenes don't cohere into greatness. Yet the hubristic, moody King Arthur has a Hamlet-ish resonance, and a few lines uncannily echo their alleged author. "So follow me, unsheathe your late-hacked blade/And dispatch hell-born foes to hellish shade," is a scene-ending couplet fit for the Globe. Phillips enjoys having his Arthur and a Shakespeare scholar duke it out in the play's footnotes, but he's embedded a serious question amid the comedy: How much lying lurks in the supposedly true stories we tell?
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer based in Washington, D.C. He blogs at americanfiction.wordpress.com.