Partisans of "experimental" fiction (I am one) frequently make unequivocal distinctions between a properly experimental and a "conventional" work: The experimental work is formally or stylistically unlike anything that has come before--satisfying Ezra Pound's injunction to "make it new"--while the conventional work merely recapitulates, perhaps with modest variation, an already existing form or style.
If the goal is to identify the truly original, this distinction makes sense, however much it seems to some readers an overly rigid standard or just unnecessary--if a work of literature provides some kind of aesthetic satisfaction (if it's merely "a good read"), what difference does it make if it can be called original or not? In my opinion formal and stylistic innovation is important in maintaining the aesthetic potential of fiction. Without it, fiction becomes just a routinized "entertainment" medium that at best appeals to readers willing to settle for routine entertainment but that at worst itself implicitly denies that fiction has any potential to be "art" except through the skill required to master the moves involved in joining together the familiar elements--plot, character, setting--associated with it as an inherited form. I would not deny that this can be done more or less skillfully (and that the result can be more or less entertaining), but surely it is artistic originality that at the very least introduces a fresh perspective on what might be possible in a particular aesthetic form, and surely this is as true of fiction as of any other of the arts.
There is also perhaps a middle ground between "experimental" and "conventional" in fiction where writers are able to follow up on (in a sense further experiment with) strategies and techniques first introduced by previous innovative writers, in some cases precisely employing those techniques in a more obvious attempt to turn them to the purposes of familiar literary pleasures. One such work is Arthur Phillips's The Tragedy of Arthur. Describable as parody or pastiche, or a combination of the two, the novel actually avoids taking on a structure readers immediately recognize as that of a novel, instead assuming the form of an "introduction" to a putatively newly-discovered play by Shakespeare, along with the text of the play. The introduction hardly exhibits the characteristics of an ordinary scholarly introduction, itself proceeding more as the memoir of "Arthur Phillips," in whose possession the play resides, and as such often satirizes the now-ubiquitous memoir form. The structure is highly reminiscent of Nabokov's Pale Fire, which Phillips has himself acknowledged, although most of the "story" occurs in the memoir itself rather than in the footnotes to the play (which do, however, add another layer of commentary on both the text and its origins.) Whereas Pale Fire works by forcing the reader to read carefully both the poem Nabokov has written and attributed to "John Shade" and the scholarly apparatus that purports to explicate it in order to extract the "real" story its narrator/editor wants to tell (which turns out to be quite an entertaining if outlandish one), The Tragedy of Arthur puts fewer burdens on the reader (at least explicitly); the fictional memoir, humorously tangential as a critical preface to Shakespeare, offers a narrative complete in itself, while the fabricated play could ostensibly also be read separately.
However lightly Phillips executes the formal manipulation, The Tragedy of Arthur is not an ordinary reading experience. It holds in balance several sources of aesthetic tension the reader must still reckon with, tensions left deliberately unresolved. Besides the obvious unresolved question (unresolved within the fictional framework) of whether "The Tragedy of Arthur" is real or fraudulent Shakespeare, we are left to contemplate how much of the story of "Arthur Phillips" is autobiographical and how much invented, which Arthur's life story--pere, fils, or protagonist of the play--is characterized as "tragedy," and whether we are to consider "The Tragedy of Arthur" as "good" Shakespeare, even if it is forged.
It may finally be the aesthetic triumph of this novel that all of these questions remain unanswered, or that they must be answered by individual readers. Although it seems most likely that the con man Arthur Sr. did indeed forge the play, the possibility it is genuine (again, within the fictional framework of the novel) is not foreclosed, as it is not beyond possibility that a "lost" Shakespeare play could one day be found. (At least two plays attributed to Shakespeare are known to be lost.) Moreover, even if it is forged, what does it say about Phillips Sr., something close to a common criminal as portrayed in the novel, that he could nevertheless channel Shakespeare's spirit well enough to produce a plausible simulation? (What does it say about Shakespeare?) (What does it say about Shakespeare that the novelist Arthur Phillips could produce such a simulation? About Arthur Phillips?) That it probably is forged additionally allows us to appreciate Phillips's satire of the "expertise" we assume Shakespeareans possess: their "authentication" of the play is clearly enough part wishful thinking, part craven service to a publisher interested in the project only for the money that might be made.
Phillips invites us to consider his "memoir" authentic as well (much of the information provided seems verifiably true), but ultimately it has to be taken as at least as much a fabrication as "The Tragedy of Arthur," however much Phillips uses real names and seemingly draws on the particulars of his own life and upbringing. Like the play, the introductory memoir has a surface plausibility as "the real thing," but we would be ill-advised to accept it as more than that. It works to reinforce formally what Sam Sacks in his excellent review of the novel called its theme of "the ambiguity of fraud" (Wall Street Journal) and in the process reminds us that all memoir is subject to this ambiguity, when it isn't manifestly fraudulent. Fiction, of course, is by definition a "fraud," but it explicitly announces itself as such, and one could say that The Tragedy of Arthur is as much as anything else a playful challenge to our tendencies to read fiction as disguised memoir and to the recent turn to memoir as a more reliable narrative source of literal truth. Readers of fiction will have to be content with the "ambiguity" that accompanies the fraud of fiction.
Such ambiguity (and playfulness) is carried through in the juxtaposition of Arthurs: Arthur the narrator, Arthur his father, Arthur the protagonist of the putative Shakespeare play, and Arthur Phillips, the author of The Tragedy of Arthur. Arthur the younger suffers the tragedy of a broken relationship with his father, Arthur the elder a similar tragedy in his loss of family, but also in the foreshortening of his own life's possibilities through his own mistakes, while King Arthur undergoes the tragedy that often befalls the royal heroes of Shakespeare's tragedies. The "tragedy" of the title perhaps then belongs equally to each, although one might ask whether Arthur Sr.'s forgery might actually represent a final triumph, a successful effort to breathe the same air as his hero Shakespeare, an effort strong enough it has fooled some into regarding it as genuine. The Tragedy of Arthur must represent a triumph for Arthur Phillips as well, a triumph of literary creation that, if it doesn't equal that of Shakespeare, or of Nabokov, is impressive enough and in its ingenuity subtly mocks any sense of "tragedy" involved in the novel's ostensible subject.
Thus finally the question of whether "The Tragedy of Arthur" as forged by either "Arthur Phillips" or Arthur Phillips is credible as Shakespeare is mostly beside the point. Certainly it is credible enough to pass as a claimant to authorship by Shakespeare, and that it be good enough to provoke the controversy depicted is as good as it needs to be. Phillips has undeniably immersed himself in Elizabethan language and culture as rendered by Shakespeare, and part of the fun in reading the play is coming upon those kinds of constructions one always finds puzzling in Shakespeare skillfully approximated. ("When they would have your guts to stuff their pudding-bags.") In my view, what Phillips has done most adeptly with the play is to fully integrate it within the concerns and the structure of the novel as a whole, and critics who have emphasized the mere fact of its presence or who suggest it is in itself the focal point of the novel have conveyed a distorted impression of its actual achievement.
Because The Tragedy of Arthur so emphatically foregrounds form, readers are not as likely to appreciate through it what in Phillips's previous novels seemed to me his strongest talent as a novelist, his facility as a prose stylist. This is on display most conspicuously in Prague, his first novel, and The Song Is You, the novel immediately preceding The Tragedy of Arthur. Although both of these novels feature (for American fiction) somewhat unconventional situations--a group of American expatriates in central Europe, an aging director of television commercials becoming obsessed with a young pop singer--neither of them could be said to be plot-driven. Both appeal through fluency of style. This is especially true of The Song is You (although ultimately Prague is probably the better novel because it seems less hermetically caught in the consciousness of a single protagonist), which intrepidly if eloquently articulates the increasingly rejuvenated mental life of its protagonist as he both surveys his life and pursues his new interest in a beguiling singer and in music in general:
The Irish girl performed that night. The crowd was larger, challenging the bar's legal capacity, and Julian thought she had changed in the last weeks, maybe even developed. She was slightly more coherent as a performer, as a projector of an idea and an image. The previous gig, something had distracted and dislocated her, as when color newsprint is misaligned and an unholy yellow aura floats a fractioned inch above the bright red body of a funny-pages dog. It had been perhaps the bass player's mistakes, or, if the hipster snob was to be credited, the seductively whispering approach of success. No matter: she was clearer tonight, even if he could still see her strive, from one song to the next, for an array of effects: the casually ironic urban girl, the junkie on the make, the desperate Irish lass whose love was lost to the Troubles, the degenerate schoolgirl, the lover by the fire with skin as velvet succulent as rose-petal flesh. . . .
With The Tragedy of Arthur, Arthur Phillips shows that as a novelist he has formidable control of both form and language. This was to an extent evident as well in The Egyptologist and in the Jamesian manipulations of point of view in Angelica, but Arthur confirms he is not an ordinary novelist rehearsing the same workshop-imposed conventions. I do not necessarily expect a new Arthur Phillips novel to revitalize the avant-garde, but I have come to expect it will exist outside the mold to which too many novels reflexively conform, formally and stylistically. His novels may lag behind Nabokov or Beckett or Sorrentino in adventurousness, but they do perhaps make some readers aware that more adventurous approaches are possible, and can even bring pleasure.
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