Monday, July 19, 2010

Arthur Phillips Gets a Bum Rap

I really like Arthur Phillips. It's too bad not too many other people seem to. The two novels I've read of his (The Song Is You, Prague) hit the dead center of the sweet spot regarding  why I love reading. Phillips's prose is a nice blend of erudite and low-brow humor, which as a reader, makes you alternate between contemplating his profundity and laughing out loud at what amounts to the literary version of fart jokes. His characters leap off the page, people you want to meet and have a beer with. And his stories are smart, often intense, and, for the most part, just a joy to read.

But for whatever reason, Phillips prose, stories, and/or characters seems to rub many other readers the wrong way. He's dull, he's an elitist, he's creepy, he's just not a good storyteller, they say. I disagree. And, if you'll permit me, here is a moderately impassioned defense of why I like Phillips in general and The Song Is You and Prague specifically: 

The Song Is You
If we'd met around this time last year, you'd probably already be annoyed with me for talking near-constantly about The Song Is You. It was one of my favorite novels of last year. When I finished it, I wrote in my "reading log" the day after finishing it that "I absolutely loved this novel — in fact, I don't think I've read a novel in a long, long time I enjoyed reading as much as this one."

The novel is about a middle-aged man named Julian and a young, beautiful singer named Cait O'Dwyer who is on the cusp of fame. The two sort of circle each other in a strange muse/artist dance in which Julian really toes the line between adoring fan and stalker. In fact, many of the women who read the novel didn't like it because they say they felt Julian does cross that line. I liked it precisely because I didn't think he did.

The novel also includes an absolutely hysterical set piece regarding Julian's brother and an "incident" that includes an unintentional racial slur while a contestant on Jeopardy. You just have to read this yourself for the full effect. Phillips himself was a five-time champion on Jeopardy in 1997 (when he was only 28 years old). Here's my full review on amazon, if you're interested. It provides more detail and a much more impassioned defense.

Prague isn't as easily defensible, but I still really liked it. I wrote, after finishing it, "I'm not really sure what to make of this novel — I definitely LOVE Phillips' style (sarcasm, humor, irony, beautiful sentences, cerebral descriptions, wonderful metaphors), and there were parts of the novel that had me fully engrossed, but other parts in which I found myself skimming or blanking out." Since writing that after I read the novel last summer, though, the story has really grown on me — and stayed with me, which is surely one of the measures the efficacy of a novel, right? 

The novel, Phillips 2002 debut, is about a group of ex-pats living in Budapest in the early 90s. Many people didn't much like this novel at all. It only averages 2.5 stars for the 159 reviews on amazon — which, to me, is WAY too low. I'd give it four, probably — just for the prose, and the fact that the point of the story (about authenticity) is profound and thought-provoking. The book actually sold pretty well when it first came out, and most critics liked it — Janet Maslin of the NY Times called it an "ingenious debut novel."

I haven't read Phillips's other two novels: The Egyptologist, which is a convoluted mystery tale of archaeology told through letters, and Angelica, a commercial flop (it's #455,554 on amazon right now!) which tells the same ghost story from four different perspectives, insisting that the reader determine what really happened. I have both of these on my shelf, just haven't gotten to them yet.
So, have you read Arthur Phillips? Like him or loathe him? Any feedback on his novels? 

(Side note that has very little to do with any of this: Last summer, I was on my way to meet Arthur Phillips at a reading/signing, and got a flat tire, so I never made it — as if the universe was trying to tell me something. I don't know what. Just something.)


  1. I started to read Prague but for some reason it didn't click at the time so I put it aside. I probably should add it back to the "to-read" pile.

  2. I haven't read any of Arthur Phillip's books but do remember his Jeopardy appearances(his name was familiar to me due to The Egyptologist and Prague). He did pretty well on that show,as I recall.

    Don't feel too bad about others not seeing what you see in his work,Greg. If he ever wins a major prize or something like that,you have total bragging rights about being first there:)

  3. @Suzanne - I'd say try The Song Is You first. It's so freakin' good!

    @lady t - Thanks for the encouragement! You're right about the literary prize - and with his talent, that is definitely not out of the realm of possibilities!

  4. I've never read any of his books, but Prague has always intrigued me. You say try Song first?

  5. @Rebecca - Very interesting - you're actually the first person I've heard who has both read AND enjoyed that book. That helps get me motivated to take a stab at it some time in the relatively near future.

    @Kerry - Definitely try Song first. Hope it doesn't creep you out! ;)

  6. I am so excited to see this post. I LOVE Arthur Phillips’s work! It is so nice to meet another fan. I’ve read Prague and the Egyptologist, and I have his Victorian book on my must-read list. In my opinion Phillips is one of today’s best satirist. And his craft of the unreliable narrator is sophisticated.

  7. P.S. Love your blog. I’m adding it to my blog’s blog rec. list.


  8. @Or So I Read - Yes! Great to find another Phillips fan. Definitely check out The Song Is You, too! Phillips is amazing in his range - like David Mitchell, each of his books bares no resemblance to any of his others. What talent!

    (And thanks for adding me to your list - I'm off to check out your blog as well...)

  9. I own a copy of the Egyptologist somewhere, and I don't know why I've never gotten around to reading it.
    I feel like I NEED to read this author now, just to understand what you think of as the literary equivalent of fart jokes.
    Unfortunate you never got to meet him. I feel like he kind of looks like a douche (oops, I'm sure that's a mean thing to say), so maybe it was the universe's way of telling you "beware! you might like him less if you meet him!"

  10. I loved Prague, and I especially enjoyed The Egyptologist. I think if you have read Nabokov's Pale Fire, you'd understand The Egyptologist a bit more -- it was Phillips' homage to Nabokov's novel.

  11. @brizmus - Yeah, perhaps I could've chosen a more flattering photo of him. Whoops! ;) I'll be interested to hear what you think of The Song Is You, especially.

    @NancyO - Nice - another plus vote for The Egyptologist! I did read Pale Fire way back in college, and remember it vaguely, so I'm heartened even more now to try The Egyptologist. Glad to hear you liked Prague, too!