Fiction and nonfiction releases from Stieg Larsson, Arthur Phillips, Kevin Brockmeier, Michio Kaku and Stephen Hawking.
For readers who like to fire up not just the barbecue but also their brains — and have fun in the bargain — there are some good options this summer. I'm always on the lookout for heirs to Vladimir Nabokov or the literary equivalent of Tom Stoppard's plays or Woody Allen's films — smart, playful, witty narratives with ideas to bounce around the cerebral cortex, as if on mental trampolines. This year, I've taken to three clever novels that offer modern twists on Shakespeare and Aristophanes, plus a wry, gory page-turner narrated by a philosophical werewolf, of all things. For those who like their linguistic hijinks undiluted by fiction, there's a fresh, offbeat glossary here, too. It's all heady but not heavy.
The Tragedy of Arthur is a play within a novel within a mystery. Arthur Phillips and his twin sister, Dana, grew up with a love of Shakespeare imbued by their father, also Arthur Phillips, who has a fringe of "Einstein hair" and is charming to the point of seduction and shrewd to the point of brilliance. He is a con man, who paints masterpieces until he is imprisoned for it.
Then one day, the elder Phillips gives his son his greatest legacy: a previously undiscovered play by Shakespeare called "The Tragedy of Arthur." Is it a fraud? Is it for real? Is Arthur Phillips' real legacy the fact that you end up wondering what is real, what is not, and why does it matter anyway? In the end, the reader gets to judge the play on its own terms.
The Tragedy of Arthur is the latest work by one of the most acclaimed novelists working in the English language, Arthur Phillips. His previous novels include The Song Is You and Prague. Phillips spoke to Scott Simon on Weekend Edition.
On the confusing nature of having many different protagonists named Arthur, Phillips says, "Well, you've got confusing and you've got enchanting. It's certainly not meant to be confusing. I don't think it should confuse anyone if they plunk themselves down and read it. It should be a lot of fun."
The father Arthur Phllips tells a fantastic story: In 1958, he was hired to make a replica of a valuable painting for a rich man in England, and in his library, he finds a 1597 play credited to Shakespeare, "The Tragedy of Arthur." He takes it, and doesn't consider it a theft because the guy didn't know that he had it. The father's story is hard to believe, at best, but Phillips the author argues that it is possible.
"I think if anyone's going to find a new Shakespeare play that we haven't noticed before, that's not an unlikely place to find one," he says. "People in the 1600s and 1700s would buy up these quartos, essentially one play in paperback, and when they had eight or 10 of them they would stitch them together into a collection, and then they would hand-write a table of contents. That's a hard thing to keep organized over the centuries. Quartos are fragile; quartos don't necessarily make it for the long haul. Most of them are lost."
But, of course, the man who "discovers" the lost quarto is a con man.
"It's certainly a plausible story, by the way, or he wouldn't be a very good con man," Phillips jokes. "On the other hand, he is a terrible con man, as he ends up in prison for most of his life. So maybe this is the one time he is telling the truth."
The virtuoso achievement among others in Tragedy of Arthur is that Phillips actually produces the play — rather than just referring to an undiscovered work of Shakespeare, he writes out all five acts.
"Yes, The Most Excellent and Tragical History of Arthur, King of Britain," Phillips explains. "Apparently published in 1597 based on an earlier, now lost edition, is included as the endpoint of the book."
The work, as good of an imitation as it is, doesn't sound exactly like Shakespeare's best. But as Phillips points out, not everything Shakespeare wrote was genius.
"I'm thinking I would like to see it put on stage sometime," he jokes. "And the marquee out on 42nd Street would say, 'It's better than Henry the 6th!' So, one of the things I wanted to get at in the book was ... I'm a big fan of Shakespeare, obviously, but he's not above serious discussion as someone that we admire as a great writer without having to talk about him as a deity beyond our human criticism."
One of the most humorous aspects of the novel is the back-and-forth between Arthur Phillips, the son, and the editors at Random House — which also happens to be the real Phillips' publisher, so they are in on the joke — and the way that the editors, even when told that the play may not be real, barrel ahead with the project.
"Let's just say for a moment that I turned up at Random House and said, 'Look what I have here, it's a 1597 Shakespeare play that no one has ever heard of before,'" Phillips says. "I think everyone knows what that would be worth. So everyone in the novel goes to great lengths to authenticate it and prove what it is and what it might not be. But when the professors are lining up to say it's real, and the ink and paper specialists say it's real, one guy jumping up and down saying 'My father is a con man' is worth ignoring."
Phillips' book raises the question of whether or not, at the most basic level, a fraud can be just as good as the real thing.
"I do, in fact, care whether a book labeled a memoir is verifiable," Phillips says. "I do actually care whether something put forth as a Shakespeare play is a Shakespeare play."
So in the end, does Arthur Phillips, the con man, create something of value?
"Yes, I am ... what's the term, aesthetic empiricism? I'm one of those guys," Phillips says. "I think if it's good and you like it, then it's good and you like it. You should stick to 'it's good and I like it' no matter what people say, no matter if the write person wrote it at the right time. So I'm of the position that if you like it and you think it's good, then by definition, it's good."
It's no secret that Arthur Phillips, king of a round table of self-deluded characters, is a devotee of Vladimir Nabokov. All of his novels, beginning with Prague (2003), showcase disarmingly brainy playfulness, rapier wit and acrobatic verbal sparring. His fifth book, The Tragedy of Arthur, is his wildest and funniest yet, at once homage to Nabokov's Pale Fire, satire of literary hagiography in general and Shakespeare scholarship in particular, and a hilarious yet trenchant riff on memoirs. His concept is so clever and fantastic — a long-lost Shakespeare tragedy is reluctantly ushered into print by Arthur Phillips, the skeptical son of a convicted forger — that the only question, through guffaws, is whether he can sustain it.
For The Tragedy of Arthur, his first book set (partly) in his native Minnesota, Phillips has once again mastered and mocked a realm of scholarship. The Egyptologist (2004), an archaeological murder mystery set in 1922 Egypt, featured a crazed, anagrammatic stand-in: deranged scholar Ralph M. Trilipush. Angelica (2007), a study in hysteria set in Victorian London, cast dark shadows on psychotherapy, ghost stories and Henry James. Dozens of popular song titles were imbedded in Phillips' last novel, The Song is You (2009), which evoked Nabokov's Lolita with a flirtatious cat-and-mouse multimedia chase.
Like Pale Fire, The Tragedy of Arthur spins a long introduction and pseudo-scholarly footnotes around a fabricated poetic work, leading to a ribald, wily debate about authenticity, illusion and delusion. At its heart is an unknown five-act Shakespearean tragedy purported to be the only extant copy of a 1596 quarto pinched by the author's father from an English country manse in the 1950s. At his father's instruction, narrator Phillips retrieves this quarto from the safe deposit box in which it has been locked away during the decades his father was locked away in prison — for multiple forgeries, including lottery tickets and the promotion of a "small picture, briefly, from anonymity to Rembrandtivity."
In order to explain his family's involvement in this document's publication in a Modern Library edition, the Phillips character casts his eye back "across time's moat," necessitating, to his horror, a plunge not just into the "Fakespeare bog" but into "that most dismal," "underregulated" genre: memoir. Doing "the legal minimum, lest the whole freyed tissue unravel" (note pun on disgraced memoirist James Frey), his confessional saga centers on his confused relationship with his unreliable, "flamboyantly literary" father. Memoirist Phillips is torn between dismissive doubt and wanting to please this man who extols "wonder and magic, disorder, confusion, possibility" and scorns facts, debunkers, and "Santa Clausicidal maniacs." As is often the case in Shakespeare, Phillips' story involves a twin — bipolar, lesbian actress Dana, who, unlike her brother, shares their father's fondness for the Bard.
The Shakespearean work in question, when we finally get to it, is a tour de force of fanatically researched stylistic mimicry. It's somewhat heavy-going, but its punch lies in the running battle between the Phillips character and Professor Roland Verre (a glass-half-empty sort of fellow) waged in the footnotes. Where Phillips sees his father's manipulative hand in the play's anachronistic echoes of Dr. Strangelove, in characters named for his father's enemies, and in his own shared birthday with the work's central character, King Arthur, Verre sees Phillips' delusional narcissism. He repeatedly cites Shakespeare's source material and the positive results of various forensics tests to debunk Phillips' assertions and defend the play's authenticity — casting Phillips not as reasonably skeptical but as crazy. On the shared birthday, Verre comments, "there are many far more likely explanations for this reference than that the play was forged to honor a twenty-first century American novelist."
Full of jousting and jesting, the thrust and parry of The Tragedy of Arthur is deliciously stimulating. And how's this for a disclaimer, from King Arthur:
I am no author of my history.
What man knows aught of his own chronicle?