Today’s guest blogger is Mark Flowers. I’m sure you’ve enjoyed his reviews here, which over the last several months have ranged from graphic novels to fiction to nonfiction:
Does it matter if a Shakespearean play was written by William Shakespeare or by a 20th century conman? Does the value of a piece of art change based on when it was written and by whom, and if it does, why? These are some of the questions Arthur Phillips challenges us with in his new novel, cleverly disguised as an edition of a newly discovered Shakespeare play, complete with introduction and scholarly footnotes.
In the novel, the play is at the center of a debate over authenticity and forgery: the narrator believes it to be a clever forgery, committed by his own father, while most everyone else believes it to be an authentic Shakespeare play–some of the funniest sections of the book are the footnotes to the play, in which the narrator claims certain lines prove the play to be a forgery, while a Shakespeare expert rebuts these claims in an increasingly sarcastic tone.
At heart, then, this is a novel about the validity of aesthetic empiricism: the claim that the author, intent, and history of a piece of art have no bearing on its inherent value. While this might sound like a dry subject, it has already been mined to great effect by such different artists as Orson Welles (F for Fake), Michael Gruber (The Book of Air and Shadows), and Thomas Pynchon (The Crying of Lot 49), and it is actually something that most teens are deeply interested in. Every time they complain about having to read a boring novel just because some famous dead white guy wrote it, students are invoking a form of aesthetic empiricism. And with his opening sentence–”I have never much liked Shakespeare”–Phillips’s narrator aims right at these teens and former teens, and is sure to win over many of these anguished English students.
This novel has been getting a lot of press for its gimmickry, but it should get a lot more for not only pulling off the gimmick, but making us all think deeply about how and why we value art in the first place.
Adult/High School–In the preface of Phillips’s new novel–formatted to look like an edition of a newly found Shakespearian play, with the novel proper listed as the “introduction” to the play itself–the fictional publisher urges readers to skip the “introduction” and read the play first. This is partly a joke (the “introduction” is a lengthy memoir explaining how the narrator came to believe that this work is in fact a forgery–a view with which the publisher disagrees), but it is also not a bad idea. Phillips has meticulously crafted a play in the style of mid-1590s Shakespeare, and it’s quite good. The fact that he could write something that sounds so much like the Bard is essential to the novel/“introduction” in which Phillips’s narrator (also named Arthur Phillips) argues first that Shakespeare does not deserve his label as the “greatest English writer,” and second that the question of “authenticity” is itself a red herring. The narrative tracks the lives of Phillips the narrator; his father (also named Arthur Phillips), a life-long Shakespeare fanatic and inveterate forger; and his twin sister, also a Bardolator. Much of this story is a straight-forward family drama, sometimes verging on melodrama, but the core is a cast of well wrought characters and an incredibly sharp sense of humor, aiming at nearly everyone involved–Shakespeare, literary scholars, Phillips himself, and many more. Equally funny for fans of Shakespeare and for teens repeatedly tortured by him, this extremely dense novel will repay repeated close attention, or can be read as merely an unusually funny parody.–Mark Flowers, John Kennedy Library, Solano County, CA