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Bookmarks Issue: 
53-July-Aug-2011
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missing imageArthur Phillips is the best-selling author of Prague (3.5 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2002), The Egyptologist (3.5 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2004), Angelica (3.5 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2007), and The Song Is You (3.5 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2009).

The Story: Contractually obligated to write an introduction for a previously unknown, five-act Shakespearean tragedy, The Most Excellent and Tragical Historie of Arthur, King of Britain, novelist Arthur Phillips pens an autobiographical account of the play's provenance and the reasons he considers it fake, much to the chagrin of its publisher, Random House. It was Phillips's late father, a small-time con artist with an abiding love for Shakespeare, who allegedly pilfered the manuscript from a Minneapolis estate. But was the play really written by Shakespeare, or is it a brilliant forgery? Phillips's introduction, followed by the manuscript, explores his unconventional upbringing and the tenuous boundaries that separate truth from fiction.
Random House. 384 pages. $26.00. ISBN: 9781400066476

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Shakespeare would applaud a man who does him so proud. Readers, too, may well praise Phillips for crafting so wily and witty an excursion into the ties that bind fiction and life." Carlo Wolff

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"Arthur Phillips' new novel is more triumph than tragedy, a clever, funny literary deceit that skewers everything in its path--scholars, Shakespeare lovers, anti-Stratfordians, family dynamics, the publishing world, bookish pretensions, even the author." Connie Ogle

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"With The Tragedy of Arthur Mr. Phillips has created a wonderfully tricky Chinese puzzle box of a novel that is as entertaining as it is brainy. If its characters are a little emotionally predictable, we don't mind all that much: we're more interested in seeing how the author cuts and sands his puzzle pieces, assembles them into a pretty contraption and then inserts lots of mirrors and false bottoms." Michiko Kakutani

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"His prose crackles with wit, and tough but shrewd observations. ... Certainly, it contains literary echoes of Nabokov, Stoppard and even the Thomas Pynchon of The Crying of Lot 49 (containing his Jacobean pastiche The Courier's Tragedy). I don't think these comparisons are unmerited." Geoff Nicholson

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Tricks and misdirection have been elements of Mr. Phillips's previous novels (his 2002 debut, Prague, is set in Budapest), but this is far and away his most ambitious endeavor, a wild Thomas Crown Affair of a novel. It's also an irresistible family drama bundled into an exploration of fraud and authenticity, packaged as an ingenious prank." Sam Sacks

Minneapolis Star Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Arthur Phillips' The Tragedy of Arthur is a circus of a novel, full of wit, pathos and irrepressible intelligence. ... 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." Mark Athitakis

Critical Summary

An incisive portrait of a dysfunctional family and a fascinating send-up of Shakespearean scholarship, The Tragedy of Arthur is surely one of the most inventive and entertaining books so far this year. Phillips invites readers to play detective, piecing together the clues to form their own opinions on the play's authenticity. Although the critics raved about Phillips's "introduction," they had mixed reactions to the ensuing play--more than 100 pages in iambic pentameter. Is it a sophisticated drama worthy of the bard, an unsuccessful imitation, or a delightfully tongue-in-cheek parody? Readers will have to decide. And besides, argued the San Francisco Chronicle, "not including the very text around which the whole novel revolves would be an unforgivable cop-out." A merry, metafictional romp, The Tragedy of Arthur "shows off a writer at the top of his game" (Washington Post).