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A Series of Accidents #16: Bluebeard

A Series of Accidents is a chronological read-through of the books of Kurt Vonnegut. You can check out earlier articles in the series here. I had thought I had posted this earlier, but apparently it became unstuck in time (complete with #15 being misnumbered), so here it is ahead of the likely release of #17 in this series.


The story of Bluebeard (the fairy tale) goes something like this: a wealthy and powerful man takes on a new wife. He takes her to his magnificent castle, and leaves her alone, with just one rule: she must not enter one particular room. The wife, of course, goes in the room, and discovers the murdered bodies of all of Bluebeard’s previous wives. He returns, and is about to kill her, before the wife’s brother arrives to kill him first.

Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Bluebeard does not have very much to do with this folk tale. Female writers like Ann Carson and Carmen Maria Machado have used the story of Bluebeard to examine patriarchal violence, and the sinking feeling that a man you love is simply keeping his abusive nature a secret. Vonnegut, on the other hand, mainly seems to have taken the idea of a forbidden room (in this case a mysterious barn.)

There is domestic violence in Vonnegut’s Bluebeard, but the main focus of the story is on the life of Rabo Karabekian, the Expressionist artist who had previously appeared in Breakfast of Champions. In that novel, Rabo is a kind of stock character, a high-faluting modern artist whose work the ordinary people of Midland City can’t understand. Bluebeard is in a way an extension of the scene in Breakfast where Rabo explains his artwork and is able to win over the crowd, suggesting hidden depths and puncturing the stereotype of the abstruse and self-interested artist he had appeared to be up until that point. It’s a very roundabout defense of an artistic style often associated with superficiality and pretension.

Bluebeard is, like Deadeye Dick and Slapstick before it, a fictionalized autobiography, covering Rabo’s life from childhood to old age, with a frame narrative taking place in the present where his house is invaded by Circe Berman, a writer of trendy young adult novels. The story goes through Rabo’s childhood as part of the Armenian diaspora, his apprenticeship to the abusive Dan Gregory, his love affair with Dan’s wife Marilee, and his encounter with Marilee later in life when she is an Italian countess who helps to launch his art career. Treated in less detail are the elements of the narrative which one would expect an artist’s autobiography to focus on: his experience in World War II, his failed marriages, his experience rubbing shoulders with artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko in postwar New York, and his ultimate rise to fame as an acclaimed painter.

Throughout the novel, Rabo keeps referring to the mysterious contents of a large barn on his property, which he forbids anyone else from entering. This is the archetypical Bluebeard’s secret. When Rabo finally reveals the contents of the barn to Circe, however, it is no he bodies of his ex-wives but rather a giant mural depicting a panoramic scene at the end of the Second World War, filled with countless tiny portraits of ordinary people caught up in the conflict. Rabo painted the work on top of a Rohko-esque display that caused his exclusion from artistic society: a giant blank canvas, a former corporate commission whose paint peeled off it while it hung. The new work becomes a tourist attraction, a pilgrimage site for veterans to pass by a mostly indifferent Rabo.

As with much of Vonnegut’s work, it’s hard not to read Bluebeard as an autobiography. Like Kurt, Rabo grows up in a family of European immigrants, has a traumatic experience in WW2, and becomes known for abstract and post-modern works before creating a widely-recognized masterpiece about the War. Biographer Charles J. Shields has interpreted the novel as the result of the disagreement between Vonnegut and his second wife Jill about the value of non-representational art, with Circe standing in for Jill. Vonnegut’s first wife Jane had died shortly before he began writing Bluebeard, and it’s possible to see her in Rabo’s saintly dead ex-wife. (Although he wasn’t romantic enough to let her posthumously-published memoir use his name.)

Reading it through this lens, it becomes hard not to read this as another manifestation of Vonnegut’s anxiety post-Slaughterhouse-Five. The masterpiece in Rabo’s barn is like a pledge that Vonnegut still had work worth doing: that he could create a great realist novel if he wanted to. Hell, maybe he intended Bluebeard to be that novel. It is, after all, largely a kunstlerroman, the classic literary genre of an artist’s development, and there are no science-fictional elements other than some unusual coincidences.

Bluebeard isn’t that much of a masterpiece, but it’s still an enjoyable book, full of the kind of wit and precision phrasing that came so natural to Vonnegut. Marilee might be Vonnegut’s best-written female character (not a very competitive field), a woman who initially appears as an object of lust but who turns out to have a complex inner life and harbour a great deal of bitterness from how women have been treated throughout the war, including by self-absorbed men like Rabo. Her and Circe together seem to represent a feminine rebuke to the typically masculine world of Vonnegut novels. The title of Rabo’s masterwork, “Now it’s the women’s turn”, seems to at least gesture at a ceding of power.

All of this analysis relies on Rabo’s abstract expressionist painting being essentially a metaphor for Vonnegut’s postmodern writing. There are good reasons to think so: both are artistic movements which sprouted in America post-World War II and came to mark a final separation between critical acclaim and popular taste. Whereas the expressionists were accused of passing off shoddy work as genius (work like Rothko’s often invited a “my kid can do that” response), postmodernists like Pynchon and Barth were seen as hopelessly abstruse and incomprehensible to any “real person.” (You can still see an echo of this today in the weird memes passed around today about how having David Foster Wallace on your bookshelf is a red flag, or “trad” types still somehow upset about Marcel Duchamp a century later.) In both cases, the word “pretentious” loomed large in public reception. For Vonnegut, whose postmodern works aimed towards simple language rather than complexity, abstract expressionism may have especially seemed like a fellow traveller.

But I also think it’s worth taking Bluebeard seriously as a novel about abstract expressionism. The book references real painters like Rothko and Jackson Pollock as well as fictional ones. Vonnegut’s author note makes care to note that the book is not “a responsible history of the Abstract Expressionist school of painting”, but that it was “inspired by the grotesque prices paid for works of art during the past centuries.”

But Vonnegut is not just levelling another emperor-has-no-clothes critique of the art world. It’s clear that he takes the artistic ideas of the Expressionists seriously, even as he pokes fun at their live. Rather, he seems to be saying that clothes, no matter how beautiful, are demeaned by being worn by the emperor, and that art is cheapened by being embraced by capital and wealthy institutions, treated as just another commodity for money laundering and tax evasion. The Museum of Modern Art, which plays a prominent role in Bluebeard’s plot, was after all started by a Rockefeller, and much of the modern art world is and has been funded by capitalist ghouls like the Sackler family. It seems symbolic that Rabo’s biggest failure was a major corporate installation, literally falling apart under the gaze of rich bankers and bureaucrats.

In his author’s note, Vonnegut describes abstract expressionism as “the first major art movement to originate in the United States of America.” (Again, one could make a comparison with postmodern literature.) In a sense, Bluebeard is also about the thorny relationship between America and Europe, both in art and war. Even as a child, Rabo moves back and forth between the old world of Europe with all its feuds and traditions and the blank canvas of America. Just as Marilee moves from being an American illustrator’s wife to an Italian noble, Rabo transforms himself from an immigrant child to an American success story, but never fully sheds the sense of guilt and alienation he grew up with.

Rabo’s final work, “Now It’s The Women’s Turn” cuts down the middle of all these dyads: both representational and postmodern, male and female, American and European, personal and popular. It’s what Vonnegut achieved with his most successful novels. But, as novels like Bluebeard show, that success never fully satisfied him: in fact, the trauma of success was something he would have to continually work through in his later novels.

When next we meet, I’ll be talking about Vonnegut’s penultimate novel, Hocus Pocus.