3 out of 5
Rembrandt’s painting Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, the starting focal point for Joseph Heller’s novel Picture This, is never quite explained to us. I mean, the description’s in the title, so it doesn’t have to be, but it’s still curious that the thing from which Heller’s whole novel spins isn’t set up in the way you might a main character or premise; our understanding of what it is is just assumed. This is a pattern that continues throughout the book, which gets more questionable when Heller starts throwing lots of historical events and other painting names at us, almost wholly without context. Subtext fills it in, sure, but while the off-hand tone is part and parcel with the author’s general style, that feeling like we’re missing something key while Joe is rattling off witticisms about it is representative of the entire 340 page novel, which is a kinda sorta non-fictional rant about the corrupting power of money, and the inherent hypocrisy of man, as told by pinging off of Rembrandt, and Aristotle – sometimes “speaking” through the eyes of the figure in the painting… and then Socrates and Plato, because they were more interesting to Joe than Homer.
But these are not characters, they’re just vehicles for Heller’s rant, circling up and around through history before and after these figures to pick at all the times they acted selfishly when claiming selflessness, or contradicted their own philosophies, and loving to play up the duality of how Rembrandt’s forgeries sold for more than his originals, or how it took years for the subjects of this main painting to even be identified, or how ironic it is that Rembrandt was a money-grubber during his active years and now has paintings valued at millions.
It’s a book told from an unknowingly privileged position – that is, surely you know the philosophers and what they’re about, and these artists and their paintings – and seems rather like Joe got caught by the history bug when researching his previous novel, God Knows, and then couldn’t wait to find a way to tell people about all of his insights regarding how fucked our society has been from the start, and came up with the clever keystone of this painting as the jumping off point for everything.
It is clever, and the book is also kind of as obnoxious as that description sounds, with Heller’s lyrical flow landing on frequent juxtapositions where he gets to say something definitive, and then cutely make the exact opposite definitive in the following sentence, lol.
And yet, that same lyricism and the open-ended nature of the structure somehow make it work. It’s still at its best when it finds actual people to work with – Rembrandt and Aristotle and Socrates, when they’re allowed to take center stage and have actual conversations, are of great amusement – but even Heller’s dryer parades through wars and political upheavals are made tolerable and occasionally amusing due to his bouncy prose, which is very light on its feet so as not to bog down a reader too much with facts and figures.
Still, try keeping the history straight, and try actually “learning” something beyond the general ‘money is evil,’ ‘people are dumb’ shticks, and you’ll likely come up dry; it’s all very ephemeral, and with no real plot or characters, nothing to prop all the wordplay up against. With all of the research presumably put into this (as very much not a student of history, I can’t say if there’s a line between fact and fiction here – though of course when people “speak,” they do so with the tongue of Catch-22’s circular logic), and with how charming Joe can be when he gets his ducks in a row and successfully ties a few pages from a thesis to a conclusion, there’s the sense that a more straight-forward version of events, and perhaps one even more fictionalized, would’ve helped enhance the themes here, and make them stick a little more significantly.