The Designer’s Drugs: Arthur Phillips – The Tragedy of Arthur

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Arthur Phillips – The Tragedy of Arthur

Anno: 2011


It helps that this book is described as a novel, considering that the main character in Arthur Phillips’ newest book is Arthur Phillips.  Due to that fourth-wall gloryholing, it’s difficult to tell how much of the book – most of it a so-called introduction longer than the so-called lost play of Shakespeare tacked on at the end – is pulled directly from the author’s own life, family, and personal disasters.  But since this is fiction, the question isn’t as important.  Phillips does bash the bland, cashing in memoirist even as he rambles on about his own tumultuous relationship with his family and with Shakespeare, yet it comes off as tolerable because it’s the character Arthur Phillips rambling and being long-winded.  Somehow that makes a difference, unless it doesn’t.

Character Arthur is a self-loathing, self-nullifying narcissist who basically spends his entire time trying to simultaneously convince the reader that he’s the worst person in the world and to mitigate that fact.  His dad, who serves as the story’s provider of plot, is a Shakespearean con man who is oblivious to or unwilling to acknowledge the damage he causes to his son, both as a father and as the supposed discoverer of said lost Shakespeare play.  Yet the old man is painted by that bitter offspring in grudgingly romantic colors.  Arthur’s twin sister, around whom he obsesses in borderline creepy fashion, is supposed to be the voice of reason in this tale, but she kind of becomes a bitch at crucial moments, the blatantly selective justice she dispenses at introduction’s end being her at her worst.  Yet character Arthur thinks she’s a saint.  Arthur is far from one himself, but in The Tragedy of Arthur, almost nobody is (and I’d save that praise for his stepdad, if anyone).  The problem is that he’s much more apt to give everyone else the benefit of the doubt while scourging himself bloody.  It’s stupid.

The anguished autobiography is good suspense and melodrama, but the real fun in The Tragedy of Arthur lies in its cultural criticism.  Despite author Arthur having written a (rather good) Shakespeare play for the book, and despite him obviously knowing a great deal more than the average philistine about the aped playwright, character Arthur paints himself, especially in light of his dad issues, as not that big of a fan.  He busts on the mindless cult of the Bard with the same clear-eyed disdain that, centuries from now, future Arthur Phillipses will wield against the Church of Beatlemania.  And goddamn, do I love seeing people dissent from assumed universal truths, especially when it’s someone like Arthur Phillips (either one).

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