Sunday, March 18, 2012

Arthur Phillips and the American Worldview

(Long) After the Fact: A look at Arthur Phillips' first novel

On Arthur Phillips’ website, the following pivotal passage is included in the synopsis of Prague, his first novel:

What does it mean to fret about your fledgling career when the man across the table was tortured by two different regimes? How does your short, uneventful life compare to the lives of those who actually resisted, fought, and died? What does your angst mean in a city still pocked with bullet holes from war and crushed rebellion?
These words are placed in the mouths of the novel’s principal characters, a group of twentysomething American expatriates who seek adventure and understanding in the newly freed Eastern bloc. And what struck me in reading the passage was that this outsized narrative covering a year’s time in 1990-91 Budapest is remarkable ten years after its publication not only for its wit, style, and poignancy, but also for its portrayal of a world in which very little has changed. Emerging from the novel, one could easily see young Americans today in post-revolutionary Tunisia or Egypt asking exactly the same questions and arriving at exactly the same non-answers.

In other words, the story resonates. But that resonance comes not only from the moment in history the story captures, but also from the author’s seemingly effortless command of his art. Each sitting takes the reader on a gliding ride through imagery and emotion that is vivid, at times piercing, but always easy to digest. Even the massive interlude Phillips injects in Part Two is completely painless, and in fact invigorating. Here we are treated to hundreds of years of Hungarian history given as backstory for one of the novel’s few aged characters, a device that illuminates the character, takes us on a exhilarating flight, and lays a solid foundation for the remainder of the story.

As it turns out, I have once again let a book sit on the shelf for much too long. Phillips has delivered four novels since Prague, all to great critical acclaim. But I figure arriving at the party late is much preferred to not arriving at all.