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Arthur Phillips brushes up his Shakespeare

THE TRAGEDY OF ARTHUR, by Arthur Phillips. Random House, 368 pp., $26.

To the catalog of "lost" or not-quite-Shakespeare plays -- "Cardenio," "Love's Labours Won," "Edward III" -- the inventive Arthur Phillips would like us to add "The Most Excellent and Tragical Historie of Arthur, King of Britain," a concoction of such amusing erudition, obvious Bard worship and hilarious footnotes you sort of wish it were real. What is real is Phillips' ongoing work as one of our most original writers, one whose career as a novelist is beginning to look like an extended exercise in literary performance art.

With his original outburst, "Prague" (which did not take place in Prague), Phillips earned the kind of attention that might have throttled a lesser novelist's career in its cradle. Rather than expire forthwith, or repeat himself, he started to genre-hop -- from sweeping historical fiction ("The Egyptologist"), to Victorian ghost story ("Angelica"), to first-person-confessional urban romance ("The Song is You") -- but never without a mischievous twist or, as per the contemporary mandate, the novelist himself being ever-present.

Nowhere is Arthur Phillips -- a character named "Arthur Phillips," at any rate -- more present than in "The Tragedy of Arthur," with its 256-page "introduction" to the purported Shakespeare play of the title. The Arthur whose voice whines, pleads, annoys and bares his tortured soul is a novelist whose work includes the books above; who, like the real Phillips, is from Minneapolis, went to Harvard and has received praise from critics and readers alike. But was the author's actual father a convicted con man, also named Arthur? Does he have a twin sister named Dana who's an actor and a lesbian? We really can't say. The family history that takes up much of the narrative -- about the father's incarcerations, the narrator's fractured romances, his love affair with his sister's girlfriend and, most important, the obsession with Shakespeare that Dad shares with Dana, and which Arthur rejects (he doth protest too much) -- is convincingly told.

The parallels between Arthur (the father, the son and the play) and the Bard are rampant, as are the intersecting tropes of their respective fictions: patriarchy, mistaken identity, sexual ambiguity, cuckoldry, double entendres, twins, name-sharing, the definition of authorship. The plight of the writer. The plight of princes. And the insertion of an artist into his own work (did Shakespeare play the original "Hamlet's" Ghost?).

It takes quite a few pages to get to the "play" itself, a work that the elder Arthur claims he appropriated while performing some skulduggery for a rich client -- someone, he claims, too rich to know he even owned the 16th century folio. But the younger Arthur refuses to allow that the play might be real, and the "introduction" to the play is in fact his case against it. As a concept, "The Tragedy of Arthur" is ingenious. As a novel, it is affecting. And never reassuringly unreal.

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