There are a whole lot of Arthurs in The Tragedy of Arthur. There's the author, Arthur Phillips, the main character, Arthur, his father Arthur, King Arthur and a long lost Arthur. That last one is the second of the two tragedies of Arthur. In that list there's the lost Shakespearean play about King Arthur and the tragedies of all the other Arthurs who appear in the novel. Got it? Good because it's worth getting.
For the moment let's concentrate on the character Arthur. He was raised by a forger, conman father, Arthur. The kind of man who can make you believe anything he wants you to but as a father leaves everything to be desired. There were three constants in Arthur's life growing up: his love for his twin sister Dana, his family's' attraction to Shakespeare and the decades his father spent in prison. Both Arthur and Dana are influenced by Shakespeare as children. Dana becomes an actress and part time Shakespearean scholar and Arthur becomes a writer. Who knows maybe he becomes the other Arthur Phillips?
When Dad has finally done his time, his stretch, paid his dues and exits jail an old man he tells Arthur his great secret. A lifetime before he had stolen an original quarto from a British Estate. He claims that the quarto is a lost play by Shakespeare, "The Most Excellent and Tragical Historie of Arthur, King of Britain The Tragedy of Arthur". The play itself is a potboiler that follows the basic Arthurian legend. It's not great Shakespeare but does that matter if it's Shakespeare? Dad wants to get it authenticated and published--with his son's help. Could this be true or Dads' masterpiece con? The two Arthurs are finally able to come together, to bond over this play. Son Arthur even forgets for a moment that he's not Dad's favorite. For a moment.
It's a Father-Son novel! It's a memoir! It's a literary investigation! It's a play by Shakespeare! It's a lie, it's the truth. The Tragedy of Arthur is a cut from whole cloth creation about invention and forgery or maybe invention verses forgery. Phillips, the author, uses Shakespeare as his device to write about what artists invent, how we invent ourselves, how the media (in this case Phillip's publisher Random House) try to invent events, and what may be invention or forgery in all things Shakespeare.
The obvious comparisons to The Tragedy of Arthur are Nabokov's Pale Fire and A.S. Byatt's Possession. In both of those novels the author created works attributed to another writer and then built a novel around their discovery and critique. Phillips does all that and then takes that idea two steps further by bringing the unreliability of memoir and a populist sense of skepticism into the mix. His contrivances hit all the serious notes and still entertains.
The Tragedy of Arthur is exceptional skill on dexterous display. I have no doubt that for every reference the plot makes to one of Shakespeare's play that I caught there were fifty others that I missed but blame on my own educational laziness and not the author's wit and knowledge. Arthur Phillips uses humor, creativity and smarts in a way that dazzles in this novel. The Tragedy of Arthur is a completely accessible, virtuoso performance by a very talented, smart writer.