I first read Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard in middle school when I ripped through all of his books that I could get my hands on in a whirlwind from Hocus Pocus to Slapstick to Deadeye Dick and beyond. I found them in rural bookstores, at flea markets, at “trade day,” and they always delivered something new and weird to me. You’ll notice that I didn’t mention his supposed masterworks, Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five, in that list, and that’s because I didn’t read them until a few years later. My introduction to Vonnegut were what are considered to be the misfires or the duds.
I picked up Bluebeard on a whim. I remembered the plot–old Armenian man tells his life before revealing his masterwork–but not the specifics, and so I grabbed it off the shelf.
The novel tells the story of Rabo Karebekian, the son of Armenian immigrants. His parents survived a genocide before moving to the United States, and they press the American dream into Rabo at every opportunity. To pursue this dream, his sends a letter to Dan Gregory, a fictional version of American representational masters like Norman Rockwell. Through this letter, Rabo enters into a friendship with Gregory’s wife Marilee. He moves to New York, begins to learn from Gregory, and eventually goes to and returns from the second World War. Postwar, he becomes an important member in the Abstract Expressionist school of painters, alongside real painter Jackson Pollock and fictional painter Terry Kitchen. Time goes on. These painters die off, often through suicide. Eventually, Rabo is an old man with a home that contains the most extensive and expensive collection of Abstract Expressionist paintings in the world. His wife passes away, and out of grief he paints a massive scene of the final moments of World War II–a giant valley full of people released from camps, armies, and the European countryside. Then, at the behest of a widow from down the beach named Circe Berman, he begins to write his autobiography.
That’s an incredibly long summary, but it gives a sense of how the novel sprawls through time, location, and medium. It is a novel about Turkey, the United States, Europe, painting, the genre of autobiography, and the various artistic and cultural revolutions of the 20th century. It just keeps going and even though it ends after the big reveal of Rabo’s masterpiece, it doesn’t really end. It merely stops.
The reason I’m writing this piece about the novel is that I spent the entire time I was reading it awe-struck by the intimacy of it all. Vonnegut’s strength as a writer was in his ironic distance from a horrible subjects, a kind of sing-song affect to the most awful things that humans can do to themselves and others. That same kind of sardonic posture is definitely in Bluebeard, but it also drops away in strange moments, giving us a sincerity in Rabo Karabekian that is missing from a lot of Vonnegut protagonists, especially when he’s thinking about his friend Terry Kitchen.
There’s a tenderness to Rabo’s writing about Kitchen, and despite the fact that I came away from the novel feeling this so strongly, I only marked two places in the novel for reference. The first:
What he would do to his father six years later, in the front yard of Kitchen’s shack about six miles from here, was take a shot at him with a pistol. Kitchen was drunk then, as he often was, and his father had come for the umpteenth time to beg him to get treatment for his alcoholism. It can never be proved, but that shot had to be intended as a gesture.
When Kitchen saw that he had actually gunned down his father, with a bullet in the should, it turned out, nothing would do but that Kitchen put the pistol barrel in his own mouth and kill himself.
It was an accident.
And much earlier in the novel:
Birth and death were even on that old piece of beaverboard Terry Kitchen sprayed seemingly at random so long ago. I don’t know how he got them in there, and neither did he.
The work of the Abstract Expressionists, or the work of their work, is at the heart of Bluebeard. In some sense, they were attempting to deal with a massive wound, a schism and time and experience ripped in the fabric of the social by two back-to-back world wars. Vonnegut is attempting to capture this general affect through Rabo’s descriptions of his painterly friends, especially Terry Kitchen. It isn’t a leap to read the passages above as particular kinds of metaphors–a man who wounds his father and purposefully self-destructs because of it, but not before capturing a little bit of life and death on a cold canvas.
Driving this home even further is Rabo’s own work, created with colored tape and a paint called Sateen Dura-Luxe, which eventually falls off of any canvas it is applied to. Thus, halfway through his career, Rabo’s works all fall apart, rendering him into a mere footnote in art history. More interesting than that very Vonnegut scenario is how those initial paintings are described–fields of color with the colored tape arranged on them. Two-thirds of the way through the novel, the narrator lets us in on a secret: while the tape was supposed to be abstract, it really was not. Each strip was meant to represent a soul, and each painting was a story.
This drives the postwar narrative home even more explicitly: the field of color, of affect, that these souls rested on literally disintegrated. There is no ground, and disenfranchised, they fell to the ground as discarded trash. Terribly disconcerting as a metaphor, for sure.
Bluebeard indirectly sums itself up through a minor character–a novelist named Paul Slazinger. He experiences a mental breakdown during the latter quarter of the novel and largely disappears from the proceedings, but not before elucidating his theory of revolution in a book titled The Only Way to Have a Successful Revolution in Any Field of Human Activity. We’re not granted any insight into this particular volume, but there’s intimations into what Slazinger thinks is necessary for those revolutions to take hold:
Slazinger claims to have learned from history that most people cannot open their minds to new ideas unless a mind-opening team with a peculiar membership goes to work on them Otherwise, life will go on exactly as before, no matter how painful, unrealistic, unjust, ludicrous, or downright dumb that life may be.
Although this is pretty strange for Vonnegut, Slazinger’s “successful revolution” requires a metaphysical turn. The “mind-opening team” that we’re supposed to identify in the text is the Abstract Expressionists themselves. Inside of that team, we can most easily identify with Rabo Karebekian and Terry Kitchen. The only one we get any kind of interiority of is Rabo, of course.
So, as quickly as possible, the two metaphysical statements that structured the Abstract Expressionists in Bluebeard.
The first is Karebekian’s idea of the soul in his paintings. These random assortments of tape and paint were stories, and those stories have meaning for an observer, but they ultimately degrade into nothing. In this model, the “mind-operating team” can show you the slow slipping away of the universe. There are things, and those things are beautiful for a while, but nothing can stay.
The second is Terry Kitchen’s absolute ungrounded being. He sprays paint on canvas and he drinks. There is no rhyme or reason to it. There are no stories. There’s nothing beautiful right beyond the surface if you would only look for it, and because of that it is eternal. The roiling void will make an infinite number of Terry Kitchen; every Rabo Karebekian will be ground to dust by time.
Paul Slazinger again:
“And what is literature, Rabo,” he said, “but an insider’s newsletter about affairs relating to molecules, of no importance to anything in the universe but a few molecules who have a disease called ‘thought.’ “
It was an accident.