The very first thing I did after finishing The Tragedy of Author - Arthur Phillips's ingenious faux-memoir - was to Google to see what was true and what wasn't...only to find that much of Phillips's traceable past has been erased.
Did he really have a gay twin sister named Dana, a scam artist father who spent his adult life in prison, a Czech wife and twin sons of his own? Methinks not. What I do know is that Arthur Phillips shares his birthday with the Bard himself, that he was born in Minnesota, and that he is indeed a writer to be watched very carefully. Because what he's accomplished in this novel - er, memoir - is sheer genius.
Arthur Phillips - the character - is an unreliable narrator if there ever was one, and points it out in various excerpts. Right from the start when he says, "I have never much liked Shakespeare," we feel a little off-center. The book is, after all about the ultimate Shakespeare scam: his neer-do-well father, at the end of his life, shares with Arthur a previously unknown play by Shakespeare titled The Tragedy of Arthur and entices him to use his Random House connections to get the play published.
To say his connection with his father is complicated is an understatement. Arthur Phillips, memoirist, reflects, "His life was now beyond my comprehension and much of my sympathy - even if I had been a devoted visitor, a loving son, a concerned participant in his life. I was none of those." Now he wonders: did his father perform the ultimate con? If so, how did he pull it off? And how do the two Arthurs - Arthur the ancient king portrayed in the "lost" play and Arthur the memoirist - intertwine their fates?
It's a tricky project and Arthur Phillips - the novelist - is obviously having great fun with it. At one point, he urges readers to, "Go Google the van Meergeen Vermeers...Read James Frey's memoir now...We blink and look around, rubbing the fairy dust from our eyes, wonder whether we might have dreamt it all. Once you know it isn't Shakespeare, none of it sounds like Shakespeare. How could it." But somehow, it does.
The play is reproduced in its entirety in the second part and indeed, it reads like Shakespeare (I read all of his major plays in grad school and have seen many of them performed). It's absolutely brazen that Arthur Phillips could have mimicked Shakespeare so successfully and with seeming authenticity.
So in the end, the theme comes down to identity. As Phillips the memoirist writes, "So much of Shakespeare is about being at a loss for identity being lost somewhere without the self-defining security of home and security, lost in a shipwreck, confused with a long-lost twin, stripped of familiar power, taken for a thief, taken for the opposite gender, taken for a pauper, believing oneself an orphan."
And, as Phillips the novelist knows, it's also a trick for perspective. The play, the novel, the memoir, the scam can equally be said to be "about a man born in Stratford in 1565 - maybe on April 22 or 24, by the way -- or about an apocryphal boy king in Dark Ages England or about my father or his idea of me or my grandfather or Dana in armor or or or." Just as Shakespeare may or may not have written his plays - according to some anti-Bards - so might this new one be a fakery, written by Arthur's fictional father. There is layer steeped upon layer steeped upon layer in this book. It's audacious and it's brilliant. Arthur Phillips convincingly shows us just how easy it is to reinvent a play, a history, or ourselves with just a few sweeps of a pen.