(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.


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Rabo Karabekian lives in a mansion on Long Island with a woman who cooks for him and her teenage daughter. His friend and neighbor is a novelist, Paul Slazinger, who is suffering from writer’s block. Rabo, a failed artist, is bonded to Slazinger by their experiences in World War II, in which Rabo lost an eye and Slazinger suffered a severe wound when he fell on a Japanese grenade to protect his fellow soldiers. Rabo despairs of them both, saying, “We look like a couple of gutshot iguanas!” Rabo’s first wife divorced him, and he is alienated from their two sons. His beloved second wife, Edith, died and left him the nineteen-room mansion in East Hampton, where he lives in slothful widower comfort. His life takes a sudden turn when he meets Circe Berman, a widow who at forty-three is twenty-eight years younger than Rabo. Circe, a very successful writer of novels for juveniles, is a woman of great spirit and charm. She moves into Rabo’s mansion and goads him into writing the autobiography that makes up the novel.

The plot of Bluebeard develops three major themes. First, Rabo is an Armenian, and Armenians and Armenian history are at the novel’s center. Second, Rabo is a talented illustrator who became closely involved with the major figures of Abstract Expressionism but failed as an artist. Finally, the Turkish genocide against Armenians is seen as a forerunner of the broader genocide perpetrated against Jews and other minorities in World War II. Uniting all these themes is Rabo’s search for a family and community, a search satisfied for him twice—once as a soldier and once again as a member of the Abstract Expressionist movement.

Rabo’s father escaped the Turkish slaughter by hiding in the ordure of a privy, his mother by pretending to be dead in a pile of corpses. As his mother lay among the corpses, she noticed in the pile an old woman whose mouth was gorged with jewels, and she took those spilled on the ground in the hope of financing a new life. When Rabo’s parents eventually reached Cairo, they met another Armenian survivor, Vartan Mamigonian, who quickly bilked them into buying a bogus deed to a nonexistent house in San Ignacio, California. Thus, Rabo was born in San Ignacio rather than, for example, in Fresno, which had a warm, supportive Armenian community.

The atrocities in Armenia and the hoodwinking by Vartan Mamigonian made Rabo’s father bitter. A talented man who could have pursued a career teaching and writing, Rabo’s father chose instead to become a cobbler. Finally, at the end of his life, he began making beautiful cowboy boots and selling them door to door, a development that failed to please Rabo because it changed his father’s life so completely. Rabo says of his father’s new occupation, “It gave me the creeps, actually, because I would look into his eyes, and there wasn’t anybody home anymore.” Terry Kitchen, one of Rabo’s artist friends, had the same look when he became converted to Abstract Expressionism, and Circe Berman explains the phenomenon to Rabo this way: “Maybe they had started picking up signals from another station, which had very different ideas about what they should say and do.”

Rabo has never forgiven his father for several things. First, he resents his father’s failure to move to Fresno, where Rabo could have had the advantage of growing up in a settled community of Armenians. Still more intensely, he resents his father’s becoming a cobbler instead of the teacher and writer that he might have been. Again, Circe Berman explains that his father had been victimized by Survivor’s Syndrome: excessive guilt over having lived through an ordeal that killed so many others. Circe becomes Rabo’s salvation. She leads him to an understanding of his problem with his long-dead father and rescues him from any of his own tendencies toward Survivor’s Syndrome by gently nagging him into writing his life’s story.

Rabo’s life before World War II revolved around his relationship with a famous illustrator, Dan Gregory (whose original Armenian name was Gregorian), and Dan’s mistress, Marilee Kemp. Hoping to curry favor with a prosperous fellow Armenian, Rabo’s mother insisted that he write to Dan and seek his patronage. The result was a long correspondence—from 1927 through 1933—between Rabo and Marilee, who saw in Rabo a suitable correspondent and a way to ease her loneliness through writing. Marilee was ten years older than Rabo and a former Ziegfield Follies showgirl. She eventually awakened his sexuality, when he was nineteen years old.

It was Marilee’s clever manipulation that resulted in Dan Gregory’s very grudging acceptance of Rabo as an apprentice of sorts. Dan was a brilliant illustrator for magazines but was explosively contemptuous of modern art and defensive about the range of his talent. He forbade Marilee and Rabo to...

(The entire section is 1995 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXIII, August, 1987, p. 1699.

Chicago Tribune. September 27, 1987, XIV, p. 1.

Kirkus Reviews. LV, August 1, 1987, p. 1113.

Library Journal. CXIII, January, 1988, p. 101.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 4, 1987, p. 10.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, October 18, 1987, p. 12.

People Weekly. XXVIII, October 19, 1987, p. 22.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXII, September 25, 1987, p. 95.

Time. CXXX, September 28, 1987, p. 68.

The Washington Post Book World. XVII, October 4, 1987, p. 9.