Bluebeard, published in 1987, is Vonnegut's meditation on art, artists, surrealism, and disaster.
Meet Rabo Karabekian, a moderately successful surrealist painter who we meet late in life and see struggling (like all of Vonnegut's key characters) with the dregs of unresolved pain and the consequences of brutality. Loosely based on the legend of Bluebeard (best realized in Bela Bartok's one-act opera), the novel follows Karabekian through the last events in his life, which are heavy with women, painting, artistic ambition, artistic fraudulence, and as of yet unknown consequence. Vonnegut's intention here is not so much satirical (although the contemporary art scene would be easy enough to deconstruct), nor is it documentary (although Karabekian does carry elements of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko). Instead Vonnegut is using art for the same purpose he used science fiction clichés in Slaughterhouse-Five: as a filter through which he can illuminate the savagery, cruelty, and essentially comic misdirection of human existence.
Listeners will recognize familiar Vonnegut character types and archetypes as they drift in and out through the background; meanwhile Karabekian, betrayed and betrayer, sinks through a bottomless haze of recollection. Like most of Vonnegut's late works, this is both science fiction and cruel, contemporary realism at once, using science fiction as metaphor for human damage as well as failure to perceive.
Listeners will find that Vonnegut's protagonists can never really clarify for us whether they are ultimately unwitting victims or simple barbarians, leaving it up to the listener to determine in which genre this audiobook really fits, if any at all.
Read and re-read this book multiple times. Love Bluebeard for its simplicity in terms of plot and for its complex examination of the full spectrum of personal relations among relatives, strangers, colleagues and even people whom we may not even like but with whom we nevertheless associate. And of course the ever-present war commentary, as Rabo recalls the events that shaped his amazing abilities and unfortunate shortcomings. I'll wait a few years and then re-read so I can be reminded of one simple truth -- we all need to cut ourselves some slack and remember what we indeed bring to the world.
As questions go, these are good ones: What is art? What is commerce? Who decides? In "Bluebeard," Kurt Vonnegut grapples with those questions alongside a handful of other humdingers: Who am I to think I have anything of importance to offer the world? Do I have talent? Who really knows? Who really cares? Here he answers, while telling the life story of abstract expressionist Rabo Karabekian: An artist must try to both define and uplift humanity. Start with whatever God gives, then never stop learning or trying, even after public failure. Somebody out there recognizes art when it bites them on the butt, and, finally, the artist cares. That's what he or she does. Yes, the world will put a dollar value on it, call the creator a genius, a fraud or a clown. But the artist must create and release that work to the world, whatever the cost. Is Vonnegut funny, sad and insightful here? As always. You bet. Put your money on him. Is this his best work? You be the...
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