PICTURE THIS is a paradox -- a mammoth delight and a monstrous disappointment. It's a startlingly imaginative work in which Heller blends three disparate times in history. Aristotle awakens as Rembrandt applies paint to canvas. When Rembrandt paints his ear, Aristotle hears. As the brush perfects the eyes, Aristotle sees. And always, Aristotle observes.
Heller portrays life in mid-17th century Amsterdam and in the 3rd century before Christ, commenting on similarities to modern living, jumping back and forth between the ages, and tracing the 300-year history of the portrait. It's quite a mix, and that's where the book fails. He just doesn't pull it off.
The book reminds me of a game of checkers played without rules. It's an uncoordinated hopscotch through centuries, filled with distractions, tangents and irrelevant side trips. It's as though he tried to combine several books into one and missed.
Heller's books (CATCH-22, GOD KNOWS, etc.) are unique. Maybe he just tried too hard to be different. The text lacks discipline, organization and the feel for language we expect from master writers. Paragraphs are disjointed, sentences are clumsy and overburdened. Too often they just plain don't make any sense.
"The great seaport city of Amsterdam was then the richest and busiest shipping center in the world. The great seaport city of Amsterdam was not a seaport but is situated a good seventy miles from the closest deepwater shipping facilities in the North Sea." That's amateurish and sloppy. And typical.
Heller's mediocre, journalistic style (reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut's) is inadequate for the job he has cut out for himself. The superb, sensitive and imaginative scholarship displayed in PICTURE THIS deserves organized, disciplined, and equally sensitive writing. It didn't get it.