Inside a little ark adrift across the universe, Sheridan Riddler removed an unfinished canvas from an easel. He put a blank canvas in its place. Sheridan Riddler picked up a brush. He dipped it into paint. He stared into the perfect whiteness waiting for him. And abandoning the opposite of art at last, the greatest artist in the world began to die.
Sheridan Riddler is the greatest painter of modern art in the universe. We know that because he screams it to the world at every possible turn. No one can capture reality, his reality, like Riddler. His muse and subject for all of his nudes is the love of his life, Suzanna. Yet she, the most beautiful woman he can imagine, remains faceless in his paintings. Even she cannot be allowed to cause people to think of anything but the great Riddler.
When Suzanna refuses to be painted nude again and walks away, Riddler pursues her deep into a Harlem of years gone by. But, as he walks in a drug induced stupor across the bridge above the Harlem River, Riddler is struck by a car and falls into the dark waters below. What happens in those waters is both revelation and curse. From the moment he awakens on the bank of the River with a river rat of a boy attempting to rob him, Sheridan Riddler is a man obsessed. The greatest artist in the universe saw something that is so immensely beyond him he will spend the rest of his life trying to recapture what he only knows to call “the Glory.”
From Buddhist monasteries, to time with a Muslim wise man in Turkey, to Tel Aviv on the verge of Sadam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, to the Sistine Chapel, to the shrines of Mexico, Riddler spends the next decades of his life searching for what he thinks he saw in the now fleeting pale memories of “the Glory.” At every turn he is disappointed. Michelangelo’ s grand paintings of God and man are frauds. Nothing comes close to what he saw as he sank in the dirty waters of the Harlem.
And now, someone knows Riddler must still be alive. A daughter he never knew has seen new paintings that could have only come from the hand of her father. And, an obsessed collector/ assassin is following her to find Riddler. The collector has spent those years hoarding up Riddler’s masterpieces and doesn’t want any new paintings on the market. For him that means killing the artist the world still thinks is dead. All of their lives, father, daughter, beloved Suzanna, and assassin, are bound up in the artist’ reconciling what he has spent a lifetime trying to recapture and what he must finally die to – The Opposite of Art.
The Opposite of Art by Athol Dickson is one of those rare novels I can manage such a detailed synopsis and yet have no fear of giving away the story. Any attempt to relate what is found within its pages in a review is as humbling as Riddler’s pursuit of “The Glory.” At best I can sketch a vague outline but only a writer with Dickson’s depth can paint the masterpiece.
This is magical realism at its best. Most of Riddler’s story is related through his remembrances as an aging man traveling with a quirky Mexican circus through the wilds of West Texas and New Mexico. Sometimes it is difficult to know if all that happens in the odd circus is the visions of a man with a mind rotted by drugs as a youth and addled by a fruitless pilgrimage.
One of the hallmarks of this kind of writing is that what is real is only known through the eyes and mind of its characters. What are we to think of an art collector assassin who believes justice is playing Russian roulette with himself before killing his target? Did Riddler really enter a circus trailer that in reality is an immense place of worship? Some of it seems wholly implausible but then again so is much of what we call reality. Magical Realism only works when the reader ceases to care if what they are reading could be true. It is true because that is the way the characters see it.
A synopsis barely scratches the surface of what The Opposite of Art is about. Take the time to read it. Read it slowly. Gaze at it like standing before the Grand Canyon for the first time. Ponder its images as Riddler does a canvas seeking to capture “the Glory.” My guess is a good number will grow impatient, flip a few pages in a book store, and go on to lighter fare. But for those brave and persistent enough to pursue the images and messages of this novel of a different kind the reward will prove more than worth it.
Reviewed by Tim George
Genre: Magical Realism
Publisher: Howard Books
Publication Date: September 2011
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