Lately, due to a class I’m slated to teach this fall on the subject of “truth and memory in creative nonfiction,” I’ve become obsessed with the ideas of memory vs. reality and the recounting of stories that walk the wobbly line between fiction and nonfiction. So, I was especially excited when my friend (and unofficial book club igniter) Ben suggested that we read The Tragedy of Arthur, by Arthur Phillips. I’m late to the game on this one (it came out in April), but I so enjoyed it that I wanted to pass along the recommendation.
The novel is written in the form of an introduction to a “previously discovered Shakespeare play” of the same name (the play, also written by Phillips, appears at the end of the book and has been deemed a particularly well-done forgery by several Shakespeare scholars). The writer of this faux introduction is the main character of Arthur Phillips’ book: a novelist called Arthur Phillips. Phillips essentially writes, as this introduction that he claims he is contractually obligated to write, a memoir of his relationship to his father (a con artist), Shakespeare (who is his father’s obsession), and his twin sister Dana (who is also a Bard fan).
Phillips tells stories of his childhood, during which his father was either delighting his children by dragging them into corn fields in the middle of the night (they discovered the next day from the news that they had created a crop circle) and going to jail, depending on the year. The relationship (obviously) becomes strained, and eventually, as an adult, Phillips moves to Prague, marries and has kids. As his marriage is failing, he returns home to the midwest and his father bequeathes upon him a previously undiscovered Shakespeare play, which he is to publish. The critics and publishers say it’s real; Phillips doesn’t buy it. Both comedy and tragedy ensue.
I won’t give away any more of the plot than that, but it’s very much worth reading–especially if you’re into real memoirs and the questions that surround all of them lately. The writing really brings up some interesting questions about authorship, memory, truth, magic, and what all of this means in the context of family. Plus, it’s funny. (The New York Times published this excerpt of the book in April, and it’s a great way to get a sense of what I’m talking about.)