Bluebeard

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Kurt Vonnegut’s books leave the reader marveling at the protean nature of the novel: What a fine form it is that can accommodate almost anything the novelist wants to put into it. BLUEBEARD purports to be the autobiography of Rabo Karabekian, although as Karabekian explains in the opening paragraph (ostensibly written after the narrative that follows), his account is as much a diary of current experiences as it is a recollection of the past. Widowed by the death of his second wife (his first marriage ended in divorce), he is writing in his opulent Long Island home, which contains the world’s largest private collection of Abstract Expressionist paintings. On the beach there, he meets Circe Berman, herself recently widowed and (under the pseudonym Polly Madison) the author of many enormously popular novels for young adults. This formidable woman immediately begins to reorganize Karabekian’s household.

Karabekian has a secret: In the potato barn which once served him as a studio, its doors now locked and nailed shut, there is something, his last will and testament so to speak--but what precisely it is he refuses to say. That secret is revealed to Circe Berman (and to the reader) at the book’s conclusion. Meanwhile, Vonnegut stirs in a rich mix of ingredients: the character and fate of the Armenian people; representational art versus nonrepresentational art, and in particular the rise of Abstract Expressionism (which Vonnegut describes as “the first major art movement to originate in the United States”); the aesthetics and purpose of today’s problem-oriented young-adult fiction; and World War II, which serves again to epitomize humankind’s self-destructive folly.

If BLUEBEARD is not one of Vonnegut’s two or three best books, it is nevertheless very much worth the ride. As usual, it stops just short of nihilism; the reader is glad but wonders why. There is a preachy feminist theme, ill-suited to Vonnegut’s sardonic persona: the male novelist discovering the error of his ways. Once started, though, BLUEBEARD is hard to put down--a claim that cannot honestly be made for many novels.