I’ve read a large number of books by Kurt Vonnegut, though given how prolific he was there are more that I have not read than that I have. I’ve always liked his stuff, always appreciated both his humor and his moral sensibilities.
If there is a weakness in Vonnegut’s writing it is the degree of sameness there is from novel to novel. At least of the ones I’ve read, just about all of them feature some kind of oddball protagonist: male, typically a loner, someone accustomed to thinking outside the box, someone who has a plethora of highly unlikely things happen to him. We typically are allowed inside the mind of the protagonist, often through the story being told by him in the first person. The protagonist is consistently a reflective, analytic, self-aware type.
It’s kind of like a typecast actor, or someone who consistently chooses, or is chosen for, the same kind of role. Think of the classic Woody Allen character, from his early comedies especially. Obviously the settings vary enormously in movies like Sleeper, Love and Death, and Bananas, but Miles Monroe, Boris Grushenko, and Fielding Mellish are really, really close to being the same guy.
On the whole, if this is indeed a weakness it’s not one that bothers me particularly, since I enjoy Vonnegut’s novels, as similar as they are to each other.
Bluebeard follows the usual pattern for a Vonnegut novel. The general feel of the book is very much like most of his other work, but the specifics are not only unlike those of his other books but too bizarre to be like much of anything.
Bluebeard is a memoir by Rabo Karabekian. Karabekian is the child of Armenian immigrants, a man and a woman who met as refugees after surviving the genocide of the Armenians by the Turks. Karabekian becomes an artist, first working as an apprentice for an abusive big shot commercial artist, and later—after being injured in World War II and losing an eye—as part of the same circle of famous modern artists that included Jackson Pollack and the like. Following two marriages that end by divorce or death, Karabekian becomes something of a recluse, eventually being somewhat brought out of his shell by the eccentrically assertive, opinionated, controlling, much younger widow Circe Berman, who forces her way into his home and his life, both of which she takes for granted she is to run. He both greatly resents her, and is intrigued by her and drawn to her.
One thing he appreciates about her (though again is also at times put off by) is that she speaks her mind, and she talks about things that matter rather than following social conventions about making small talk or respecting people’s privacy and hang ups. This is illustrated by their very first meeting when they come upon each other as strangers on a beach, and instead of “Hello” or “How do you do?” or even “Who are you?” her first words to him are “Tell me how your parents died.”
Though he eventually becomes associated with non-representational modern art, ironically Karabekian regards himself as unskilled at that kind of painting, whereas he is phenomenally good at making paintings realistic enough to be mistaken for photographs (as was his aforementioned abusive mentor, who, unironically, despised modern art).
One of the many issues addressed in the book is that of the value of modern art. Various of the characters make cutting remarks about it. As far as the classic defense of it—that with the advent of photography it became pointless to simply try to duplicate reality as closely as possible in a painting, so painting needed to explore and develop other, non-representational, approaches—Bluebeard makes the case, including with the ending, that this underestimates how powerful conventional representational art can be when done well with the right, morally significant, subject matter.
I won’t attempt to highlight—and certainly won’t attempt to summarize—all the many tangents and ruminations of Vonnegut/Karabekian in Bluebeard. Suffice to say they are vintage Vonnegut: Sometimes very funny in their weirdness, sometimes just very weird in their weirdness, consistently indicative of moral seriousness and the ability to think critically about humanity and American society, sometimes touching, and often thought-provoking. I don’t know where I’d rank Bluebeard relative to the other Vonnegut books I’ve read, but it’s not far from the top nor far from the bottom, since as I noted, they tend to all be quite similar to each other (and tend to all be quite good).