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Review: 'Great Night' by Chris Adrian, 'Tragedy of Arthur' by Arthur Phillips take cues from Shakespeare

For a guy who turned 447 last month, William Shakespeare is remarkably vital.

His work has served as inspiration for two of the best novels I've read so far this year: Arthur Phillips' The Tragedy of Arthur and Chris Adrian's The Great Night.

The Tragedy of Arthur is built around a five-act play of the same title about the mytho-historical English king — purportedly a lost work of Shakespeare, written early in his career.

But the very authentic-sounding 111-page play (complete with scholarly footnotes) is preceded by a 256-page introduction by someone named Arthur Phillips, who is both the play's custodian and its severest critic — "Arthur is bad. The play is bad. It is bad. Don't read it." — and who, instead of being thrilled to present it to the world, is allowing its publication only under legal threat from his publisher (and another threat by someone much closer to him).

The introduction becomes Arthur's story — not the king's, but the contemporary character's, who bears great resemblance to the novelist (both born in Minneapolis, both in their 40s, both the authors of four novels titled The Song Is You, Angelica, The Egyptologist and Prague).

This conceit of gloss as novel has been used before, of course, notably in Vladimir Nabokov's brilliant Pale Fire (a title borrowed from Shakespeare), which takes the form of a 300-plus-page commentary on a 999-line poem by the late poet's editor-rival (who may or may not be a king and/or delusional).

But Pale Fire's Charles Kinbote was fictional; Tragedy's Arthur Phillips may or may not be the author, or maybe sometimes. And, to make things more confounding, another of the book's central characters is the narrator's father, also named Arthur Phillips, a failed fine artist and moderately successful con artist, who spends much of his son's life in jail for small-time scams. "And what was his payoff? Why bother? To astonish," his son says.

The senior Phillips is a devout fan of Shakespeare's work, an enthusiasm he shares with his daughter, Dana, the younger Arthur's twin. Young Arthur is not a Shakespeare fan, although he wants to be a writer himself — at one point, he declares that "the real greatest writer in English literature" is Arthur Conan Doyle. (Is that a clue, Watson?)

The twins are intensely competitive, especially for their father's attention, and intensely close. As young adults, they share an apartment in New York, where they sometimes vie to pick up the same woman in bars, since Dana is a lesbian (and, as her adoring brother discovers, not a woman you want to lose a bar bet to).

When dear old Dad dies, he bequeaths to Arthur (not Dana) a copy of the lost Tragedy, purportedly printed in 1597 and, if legitimate, worth enough to make the family very rich. Is the play real, or is it the elder Phillips' final, brilliant, most successful forgery? Is it a gift or a trap?

So, father issues, identity and gender issues, twins, questionable documents — sounding like your college Shakespeare course yet? And remember, Shakespeare's own identity is still the subject of immense speculation.

Despite its title, Tragedy (the novel) is more comic than anything else, its plot an ever-surprising roundelay of who's conning whom. Crammed with Shakespeareana and other literary lore (not for nothing is the novelist a five-time Jeopardy champ), Tragedy is a dazzling combination of elements of Shakespeare's style with the author's own. Phillips' exuberant use of language, his sly wit, his bravura juggling of high culture and low humor, all reflect the Bard of Avon's influence in an utterly contemporary novel.

How deliciously blurred is the line in this book between real and unreal? Monday night in New York, The Tragedy of Arthur (the play, not the novel) will receive its first staged reading by the Guerrilla Shakespeare Project.

Grief and magic

The narrator of Tragedy is emphatically not a fan of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. He says, "I'm with Samuel Pepys on this one: 'The most insipid ridiculous play that I ever saw in my life.' "

A Midsummer Night's Dream is very much an inspiration for Chris Adrian, whose novel The Great Night is a retelling of that story of love, betrayal and (again) confused identities in the realm of Faerie.

Sometime since the 16th century, Oberon and Titania, king and queen of the faeries, have moved their supernatural host from a forest near Athens to Buena Vista Park, sandwiched between the Haight-Ashbury and Buena Vista neighborhoods of San Francisco.

Immortal and hence unacquainted with grief, the royal pair have been broadsided by an event all too familiar to mortals: death. Oberon and Titania have long enjoyed the company of changelings, human babies whisked from their cribs and kept as a kind of pet. In the past, they've always been returned to the human world when they lost their childish charm.

But the latest changeling — called Boy, because he was the only one living in Faerie — developed leukemia. Even though Oberon and Titania (magically disguised as trailer park denizens) took him for treatment, neither their great powers nor medicine's could save him.

As The Great Night opens, Titania is gripped by depression and Oberon has fled into the city, not to be found even by the resourceful Puck. On a desperate whim, Titania frees Puck from his ancient bonds of servitude so he can use his full powers to find the king. But this Puck is not the merry, mischievous Robin Goodfellow of Dream. He is a ruthless monster feared by all the other faerie folk, one who thanks Titania thus: "Milady, I am in your debt, and so I will eat you last."

On that midsummer night, three young people headed for the same party enter the park just at the time it is enthralled. Will is an arborist and aspiring writer pining after a failed romance; Molly is a sales clerk and the widow of a suicide; Henry is a doctor who struggles with obsessive behaviors triggered by his childhood abduction (about which he remembers nothing) and which drove away the man he was in love with — but then, the course of true love never did run smooth.

This lovelorn trio is trapped in the park and will spend the midsummer's night fleeing Puck through the halls of the faerie palace beneath a hill — and discovering the surprising connections among them, even though they seem to be a random group.

Just as Dream culminates in an amateur performance of Pyramus and Thisbe, The Great Night reaches a climax while a troupe of homeless people enact a musical version of Soylent Green, that old sci-fi movie about "People, people who eat people . . ."

Adrian (The Children's Hospital, A Better Angel) is particularly adept at capturing his characters' pain and grief; his description of the Boy's death is simply heartbreaking. (He's writing from experience as a doctor whose specialty is pediatric hematology-oncology).

Another of the book's strengths is its skillful mix of fantasy and realism. Adrian writes wonderful scenes of enchantment — trees of gold and silver, a creature with a human head and rabbit's feet and a furry bunny bottom, the Boy's hospital room magically filled with piles of whole cheeses and loaves of bread after he asks for a grilled cheese sandwich — and equally vivid scenes anchored in the real world.

His stories of the lives of Will, Molly and Henry are laced with sorrow but also warmly engaging and often funny, and their reactions to their adventure in the land of wonders are telling. As Will thinks at one point, "He was taking things as they came and trying not to let fear or bewilderment compromise his appreciation of the extraordinary things all around him."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

The Great Night

By Chris Adrian

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 292 pages, $26

The Tragedy of Arthur

By Arthur Phillips

Random House, 369 pages, $26

Review: 'Great Night' by Chris Adrian, 'Tragedy of Arthur' by Arthur Phillips take cues from Shakespeare 05/14/11 [Last modified: Saturday, May 14, 2011 5:30am]

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