Whether it's the mysterious Arabic manuscript undergirding Don Quixote or the autobiography at the heart of Robinson Crusoe, novels have long relied on "false documents" - elaborately conceived texts that, by claiming to be factual, boost a novel's sense of realism, of being a credible world unto itself. These writers worked hard to create a sense of authenticity around their false documents, writing introductions or commentaries that painted themselves as humble custodians of the found text. The technique could also be useful for disassociating an author from a book's political content, as Voltaire did by claiming that Candide was translated from the work of a "Dr Ralph".
Readers of yore may not have been as credulous as we would like to believe - Voltaire was widely acknowledged as the author of Candide - but the false document served as a useful device for stretching the boundaries of the novel and for justifying the publication of otherwise controversial work.
Today, a writer is more likely to use a pseudonym to distance himself from a potentially inflammatory work. The false document has matriculated to the realm of fanciful conceit, occupying territory adjacent to - if less ambitious than - the Oulipo group's constrained writing or John Barth's metafiction. In the 20th century, Jorge Luis Borges was among the great practitioners of false documents; in a sense, they populated his entire world.
In its self-consciousness, a false document emphasises a novel's sense of play. It is also a gesture towards the outside world, laying claim to a life beyond the text. A protagonist's reading of a fake Le Monde article may be just as effective as his visiting the Louvre to remind the reader that while a novel isn't life, it is composed of the stuff of life. According to EL Doctorow, whose essay False Documents presents an insightful meditation on the technique, "in order to have its effect, a false document need only be possibly true".
The Tragedy of Arthur, the fifth novel by the American writer Arthur Phillips, is a worthy addition to the shelf of novels built upon this premise. With occasional winks at his complicit reader, Phillips's book cannily employs fictional texts to interrogate notions of authenticity, artistic licence, inspiration and the nature of celebrity.
The first 250-odd pages of The Tragedy of Arthur are an introduction to what appears to be a rediscovered Shakespeare play, The Most Excellent and Tragical Historie of Arthur, King of Britain. The introduction is written by a novelist named Arthur Phillips, a man who shares many biographical details with the real Arthur Phillips. The last 110-plus pages of the book are the play itself, a wonderfully conceived imitation of a Shakespearean tragedy, down to the Elizabethan diction and measured iambs. To further the illusion, the book includes a preface from his publisher, touting its role in bringing this "lost" Shakespeare play to life, as well as the customary author biographies and bibliographies for both Arthur Phillips and William Shakespeare.
So why all the gamesmanship? In a sense, this is Arthur Phillips's literary funhouse; we're just passing through. But there's also a finely tuned novel here, as well as some fiercely moving storytelling. It's a fiction to which curious readers would be well advised to submit.
The introduction - a pastiche of literary criticism, a self-abnegating memoir - takes us through the life of the fictional Arthur Phillips, who grew up in Minnesota under the intermittent spell of his similarly named father, an art forger and Shakespeare-devotee who spent most of his adult life in and out of prison. When he's not in jail, the elder Phillips reads his children - the younger Arthur and his brilliant twin sister, Dana - Shakespeare and takes them on magical night-time excursions to create crop circles. He is what we expect from a forger: shrewd, seductively charming, artistically frustrated, and wholly unreliable.
Eventually, the children's mother divorces her conman husband and marries the steady, reliable Silvius, but the twins grow up in the shadow of their larger-than-life father and his beloved Shakespeare, the central figure of his life. Dana learns to adore both her father and Shakespeare; by age 11, she is able to recite from memory large sections of the Bard's corpus. But for her brother, Shakespeare is just as fraudulent as their father, a composer of "blank-verse torture" whose reputation as the preeminent artistic figure in the Western world owes more to good PR than literary genius.