Novel November


by Kurt Vonnegut

Reading Review by Michael Channing

Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut

This book is different from Vonnegut's other novels. Until it isn't. Usually, the characters exist to help the author put forth his views on some topic: war, religion, guns, justice, god, free will. You know, the big stuff. Always there's one or two over-arching themes to each of Vonnegut's books. Slaughterhouse-Five is his book about the futility of war as well as the futility of anti-war books. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is his book on the wealth gap. Bluebeard is different in that it actually seems to care about its characters rather than what they represent.

The book is presented as the autobiography of Rabo Karabekian, a minor character from Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions and a minor abstract expressionist painter in the world of the novel. He was somewhat famous at one time for painting large canvasses a single color and adorning then with strips of bright electrician's tape. But the brand of paint he used, an exterior paint found in hardware stores and guaranteed to “outlast the Mona Lisa,” disintegrated over time and fell off whatever surfaces it was applied to. All of Rabo’s works, sold for large sums of money to collectors, galleries, and businesses, were reduced to blank canvasses, and he became a laughable footnote in the history of abstract expressionism while his friends, among whom were Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollack, became world famous. Those friends, by the way, all gave him a bunch of their paintings over the years in exchange for beer money or a place to crash. So he’s amassed the single largest collection of abstract expressionist paintings in the world, and he’s sold pieces from time to time for millions of dollars. That’s where we are when the book opens. He’s an old man with a fortune he did very little to earn, no problems, and no motivation. Then an eccentric woman enters his life and flips it all upside down.

The woman, named Circe, urges Rabo to write his autobiography, so the book we're reading exists because of her request. It switches from Rabo's past to him commenting on the writing of the book itself and Circe's reaction to it. There's a strange reflective feel to the novel, where we witness not only the subject’s life but also the actual act of him writing about his life. An artist commenting on his art as he creates it: Vonnegut must be doing this on purpose, so what is he trying to tell us?

At first it feels like he's just telling a story about people. And it's a good one. Rabo apprenticed with the most famous commercial artist in the world, but the backstory to how he was accepted as an apprentice is sad and traumatic. Then Rabo joins the Army and fights in WWII, and the reader starts to feel the manipulating hand of the author upon the tale. It seems Vonnegut simply can’t just write about characters. He has to shove Meaning into his books. And more often than not, he has to tackle some personal conflict while doing it. It may be a little more subdued this go-round, but he’s definitely writing about himself. Rabo worries than his war experiences have colored his art too much. That he can’t let go of his past, of his failings, of his inability to see certain things that were directly in front of him all along because he had been living in the past for most of his life. For Kurt, the experience of Dresden, which is the focal-point of Slaughterhouse-Five, resurfaces so often in his work, that he does seem stuck in that time. Here, he worries he is rehashing old material to the point that it's almost as lacking in content as a Mark Rothko painting. In the end, the narrator reveals a secret he has kept hidden from everyone--including the reader, which is a rarity for Vonnegut who usually gives away the endings to his books in the first chapters. The secret started as a way for him to expunge lifelong grief and guilt, the pain of having failed as a husband and father, and to channel those heavy emotions into one final act of creation. It’s actually a great reveal, and I was taken aback by the sheer inspiration of it. It’s not something that Kurt himself could ever accomplish, but he always seems to be struggling to do the equivalent using words. Rabo’s final message to the world becomes famous and people travel from all over to bear witness. Is this wishful thinking on Vonnegut’s part? Does his ingrained humility prevent him from realizing his novels have touched and changed the lives of millions?

If you’re a Vonnegut fan, then you’ve probably been listening to the Vonneguys podcast. (If you don’t know of it then you should search it out right now. Recommended listening for all Vonnegut readers.) One host liked Bluebeard quite a bit, but the other hated it. Absolutely hated it. He gave a convincing enough argument to the novel’s weaknesses that the pro-Bluebeard host immediately downgraded his view of the book. Michael Swaim, the one dumping on the book, said the pro-feminist leanings of the book are negated by the fact they are espoused through a male character who suffers very little in the plot (he lost an eye in the war, but he says he can’t remember the incident and felt zero pain), while a strong and outspoken female character gets very little page time except to serve as a punching bag for a masochistic fascist (not the narrator, by the way). When she finally gets to state the truths she has found, they are co opted by the male lead, and he gets to take credit for being enlightened. Wow, you know, now that I’m typing out his position in my own words, I can see where he’s coming from. Damn, Swaim, you got me, too.

It’s not a bad book. It’s not great either, but I won’t say I hate it. I feels like Vonnegut began the novel trying to steer clear of his usual m.o. but couldn’t figure out how not to do what he’d been doing for decades. The effort winds up watered down, lacking the usual bite that comes at the end of Vonnegut’s other books. He doubted his formula, then he doubted his ability to escape it.

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