Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Echoes: James Deaver's Carte Blanche and Arthur Phillips' The Tragedy of Arthur

When critics review summer books they inevitably focus on the latest big thriller, or some highly anticipated romantic novel (dismissively labelled as 'chick lit'). But why should that be all that one reads? Are readers that confined to genre that this is all they've come to accept during the lazy, crazy days of summer? Depends on the reader. This reader, with his all-over-the-damn-place tastes, rarely confines himself to one style of writing when it comes to summer reading. In fact, two novels I've recently embraced as 'summer books' could not, on the surface, be more different. James Deaver is a respected thriller writer (though I've never read any of his work before this) but he is the latest author approached by the Ian Fleming estate to be given the task to continue the James Bond series. The result is the thoroughly entertaining Carte Blanche (Simon & Schuster, 2011). Arthur Phillips' The Tragedy of Arthur (Random House, 2011) could be more sharply defined as literary fiction, so it was far more challenging. But I found both reads thoroughly absorbing, whether it was hot outside or not. Interestingly, both books, as you will see, are recreations/copying of the work of writers from the past.

Deaver's Carte Blanche pretends that the Bond films do not exist. Instead, he embraces the universe as created by Ian Fleming. In his novels and short stories, Fleming loved to go on about the luxuries that surrounded him in the 1950s and 1960s, such as Bollinger, Aston Martin cars, etc. Deaver pays homage to  Fleming's style at the start but then he seems to get caught up in minutia of brand names without really doing it with the same zeal that Fleming brought to his books. He seems to be aping Fleming rather than expanding upon him.

But when it comes to his relationship with women, however, the Bond we might imagine existing in the 21st century finally comes to the fore. After Bond's deliberately derailed sexual encounter with his colleague Ophelia Maidenhead is nicely handled, Deaver finds his groove. From that point onward, Deaver's personality takes over, creating a world, and a Bond, that becomes his own man. The villain, Severan Hydt, is very much like a Fleming bad guy. He's got a scheme that is almost credible rather than the usual obsessing about taking over the world like most Bond film villains. He is a billionaire (aren't they always?) who owns and operates a recycling company with international connections (this is, I admit, a bit too close to Dominic Greene, Mathieu Amalric's villain in the terrible 2008 Quantum of Solace film, who also ran an environmentally friendly company). His plan is filled with bribing political figures and a preoccupation with rot and decay (since his company is about recycling, that connection generally makes sense). I won't detail his evil scheme any further because that would spoil the plot, but since it follows the Bond book formula, the outcome is never really in doubt.

Jeffrey Deaver.
That is perhaps the book's biggest flaw. As Bond is always victorious, the jeopardy as presented here is never really that elevated. Set mostly in South Africa, Carte Blanche's side characters are too neatly defined in either their heroism or villainy. If you don't see the betrayal of Bond by one particular character coming a mile off, you've not read enough thrillers. Deaver is a good thriller writer, but he gets handcuffed somewhat by the demands of the Bond formula. Yet some of his writing is actually quite good:

“M disconnected from Moneypenny and sat back stiffly in the well-worn gilt drawing room of a building in Richmond terrace, between Whitehall and the Victoria Embankment. It was one of those utterly unremarkable fading structures of indeterminate age in which the sweat work of governing a country is done.”

As an unchallenging read for the summer, Carte Blanche is perfectly acceptable if perhaps a bit too long at 414 pages.

Arthur Phillips' The Tragedy of Arthur ironically telegraphs what will happen with its very title, yet unlike the Deaver book, it takes several thrilling and unique chances.The Tragedy of Arthur's conceit, and a lot of it is conceit, is truly original. The book is actually divided in two. The first two-thirds is a long introduction written by “Arthur Phillips,” a moderately successful writer who is telling the story of his life as a lead up to the second section, which is the text of an undiscovered play by William Shakespeare, "The Tragedy of Arthur" ... or is it? The reason for the doubt is that Phillips' father is a con man who throughout his life launched scheme after scheme to trick somebody or other out of a sack of cash. The central narrative established very early on is whether "The Tragedy of Arthur" (which tells a different version of the tale of King Arthur without Merlin or a sword in the stone), was a fraud perpetuated by Arthur's Shakespeare-loving con man father; or if it really was written by the great man. “Arthur” is a classic unreliable narrator. He tells us his story, especially his connection to his twin sister, Dana, and his constantly jailed father, in order to present the 'truth' about the supposed Shakespeare play. And yet, on more than one occasion, we come to doubt his version of the tale. (The son of a con man who is conning the reader?)

In some ways, this book reminded me of the great Anthony Burgess novel, Earthly Powers. In that novel, a character loosely based on Somerset Maugham, is approached by the Vatican to prove that a now-deceased Pope (and former friend of the narrator) did indeed perform miracles that the narrator witnessed. If he can confirm the miracles, this deceased Pope can become a saint. The narrator tells us that the only way he can put the pieces together is to tell the whole story of his life and his relationship with the Pope. In Phillips' book, the 'introduction' that “Arthur” writes serves the same purpose. He is recalling his life to confirm for himself whether his father, the fraudster, has perpetuated the greatest fraud ever – the faking of a 'lost' Shakespeare play – or if it really is an undiscovered work by the Shakespeare. We know the truth, but the journey that Phillips takes us on in – first, the long introduction, and second, the text of the play – is compelling. 
Arthur Phillips.
What is most fascinating is how various layers of the 'tragedy' of “Arthur” become echoed in the play, "The Tragedy of Arthur." Is the play “Shakespearean” enough to maybe be considered an undiscovered lost work? Though I studied Shakespeare for one year at the University of Toronto under the great teacher, Northop Frye, I will never profess to being a great scholar on Shakespeare's work. But it did seem derivative of Shakespeare rather than written by him. Our doubt is the point.

In some ways, The Tragedy of Arthur is an echo of Deaver's novel. Fleming might be long dead, but people are still contracted to write books that are faux versions of what he did. The Tragedy of Arthur is haunted by a possibly lost Shakespeare play that, in the end, might be the greatest copy of Shakespeare ever pulled off. With their legacies to the past intact, both these books age well under the sun.

David Churchill is a film critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to http://www.wordplaysalon.com/ for more information.

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