Review of Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
I read Vonnegut now. Vonnegut is cool.
I have vague memories of reading Vonnegut before—I have some very old, very pulp editions of some of his other novels that I … er … “liberated” from my father. I swear I’ve read Breakfast of Champions before, and I’m pretty sure I read either Cat’s Cradle or Player Piano at my sister’s wedding. I remember this because I was only 15, but the server still offered me wine (I declined). Suffice it to say, although Vonnegut is associated with some interesting memories, this is really the first of his novels that I have read as an adult, and the first one I remember well enough to review.
Bluebeard is easy to read and, therefore, easy to dismiss. Thanks to the conversational first person narration and the consistent switching between Rabo’s reminiscences and the present day at his home in the Hamptons, Bluebeard feels like a light novel. Yet this is also a story about genocide survivors, abusive relationships, the horror of war, and the horror of mediocrity. This book is an excellent example of how levity can be just as good at delivering a polemic against war as more gritty, realistic depictions like you might find in The Kindly Ones or in Hollywood movies.
Vonnegut has some choice words for the way movies, in general, portray war. His narrator, Rabo Karabekian, points out that most of the veterans in those movies are the age he was when he returned home, and not the young striplings whose lives are shattered on the front. In general, as one familiar with Vonnegut might expect, utter disdain for war and for the glorification of war pervades Bluebeard, almost dripping off the pages. What makes the book so impressive—and so successful—is how Vonnegut manages to do this in such a pithy way:
That was an ordinary way for a patriotic American to talk back then. It’s hard to believe how sick of war we used to be. We used to boast of how small our Army and Navy were, and how little influence generals and admirals had in Washington. We used to call armaments manufacturers “Merchants of Death.”
Can you imagine that?
Coming from a country whose armed forces are routinely ridiculed for their perceived lack of personnel or equipment, I totally can, Rabo. I love this passage so much, because it demonstrates the irony of contemporary ideas of American patriotism—failing to support the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan somehow makes one “un-American”, or at the very least constitutes a “suspicious” action, a black mark on one’s patriotism. Vonnegut, the Vietnam War no doubt weighing heavily in his mind as he wrote this, wanted to remind us that the militaristic mindset that accompanied the United States’ rise as a twentieth-century superpower was not always the status quo.
Rabo Karabekian is an awesome narrator in general, because he does not bullshit. He strikes me as a man who knows exactly who he is, who is comfortable with his place in the world, who accepts his flaws and failures and position of mediocrity. In the end, he is as divested of illusions as it is possible for a human to be. This is an incredibly refreshing type of narrator to have. Rabo doesn’t ask for forgiveness and doesn’t offer up excuses (beyond joining us in shaking our heads at his youthful naïvety). He is self-deprecating, but he does not wallow in self-pity. He has been through war. He married, divorced, married again, and survived his second wife. He is American in citizenship and, mostly, in sentiment, yet he has taken up the flag of his father to carry on their cultural heritage as Armenians—he leaves all his property and wealth to his estranged sons, on the condition that they legally change their names and those of his grandchildren back to “Karabekian”.
So Rabo is complex yet comfortable, and he is definitely the heart of this story. That might seem obvious given that Bluebeard is a fictional autobiography, but I would argue that there’s a difference between being the main character in one’s story and being its heart. In the end, despite invoking a number of famous people (both real and fictional), the story and its lessons are about and for Rabo Karabekian. A different Rabo, one less sympathetic or more clever, would still be the main character of his own life, but would he make the book enjoyable? Would he be able to pull off the levity that allows Vonnegut to juxtapose war with abstract art? I’m not sure, but I’m glad I don´t have to find out!
Rabo owes this state of grace in part to his artistic struggles and the conflict between his technical mastery and his stillborn passion. He also owes it, however, to the effects of Circe Berman, a widow who shows up on his private beach, invites herself to stay at his place, and slowly transforms his home and his life. Overbearing and irksome, Circe is nevertheless a positive influence on Rabo. I say this knowing full well that if some woman redirected my foyer without my permission, I, being the incorrigible 21-year-old that I am, would probably not handle it as well as Rabo does, all things considered! :D The interaction between Rabo and Circe is by far one of the best aspects of Bluebeard, because it is rife both with real tension and with real respect between the two parties. This is evident in how Rabo decides to reveal the contents of his potato barn to Circe.
At one point, Rabo has a very frank conversation with his cook and her daughter, Celeste, in which we learn that despite employing her for years, Rabo has never remembered his cook’s name (it’s Allison, Allison White). Indeed, when Rabo kicks out Circe, Allison gives notice, stating that she can’t stand working for him any more without Circe around to improve the atmosphere of the house. It’s not that Rabo is a bad person, but he has fallen out of practice interacting with people as human beings, and Allison accuses him of being “scared to death of women”. Rabo’s relationships with women throughout Bluebeard are certainly interesting and rocky. As an adolescent, he forms an attachment to Marilee Kemp, who is eleven years his senior and takes on the role of guardian angel/patron saint, ultimately bringing Rabo to New York to apprentice to Dan Gregory. Rabo eventually loses his virginity to Marilee and then foolishly takes her “you have to leave now” speech at face value, always thinking of her for years but never trying to win her back.
When next they meet, she upbraids him thoroughly for this, and through her Vonnegut has some harsh words to deliver about war and women:
“The whole point of war is to put women everywhere in that condition. It’s always men against women, with the men only pretending to fight among themselves.”
“They can pretend pretty hard sometimes,” I said.
“They know that the ones who pretend the hardest,” she said, “get their pictures in the paper and medals afterwards.”
The “condition” to which Marilee refers is the situation of being desperate for food and protection for themselves and their children. Viewed in this way, war is a mechanism for the oppression of women. The reward for participating in this oppression is glory and power, which is exactly what is promised for participating in colonialism/imperialism as well:
Lecturers traveled all over Northern Europe with such pictures in olden times. With assistants to unroll one end and roll up the other, they urged all ambitious and able persons to abandon tired old Europe and lay claim to rich and beautiful properties in the Promised Land, which were practically theirs for the asking.
Why should a real man stay home when he could be raping a virgin continent?
It’s all very tongue-in-cheek, but there is also a layer of seriousness here, because Vonnegut is both condemning the imperialism of the past (which is easy to do) and criticizing our society for letting it continue. We acknowledge the wrongs of the past even as we deny those of the present. I know that, for me personally, we learned about atrocities like the residential schools in Canadian history class, but there was always this subtext that “things are better now”. Well, they are better, in some ways, and maybe in other ways they’re worse too. When you grow up and leave the history classroom for the less comfortable world outside, you realize that nothing is really so simple as the textbook makes it appear. And so I conclude with my single most favourite quotation from Bluebeard:
The darkest secret of this country, I am afraid, is that too many of its citizens imagine that they belong to a much higher civilization somewhere else. That higher civilization doesn’t have to be another country. It can be the past instead—the United States as it was before it was spoiled by immigrants and the enfranchisement of the blacks.
This state of mind allows too many of us to lie and cheat and steal from the rest of us, to sell us junk and addictive poisons and corrupting entertainments. What are the rest of us, after all, but sub-human aborigines?
I was born in 1989, so I can’t attest to the zeitgeist Vonnegut was addressing when he wrote Bluebeard. Nevertheless, the above quotation certainly captures my mind in 2011. We celebrate—and rightly so—the declarations of human rights, of equality regardless of gender or ethnicity or sports team, the victories we have so far achieved. Yet there is still so much to do, so much inequality to address, not only within countries that lack or struggle with democracy but even in so-called “developed” countries like Canada and the United States. Yes, in 1867 we became an independent dominion, and a parliamentary democracy as well. But it wasn’t until 1918 that women could vote federally. And, I did not know this, but according to Wikipedia, prior to 1960, First Nations people had to give up their status in order to vote! So we can be proud of being 144 years old, Canada, but it has been a long, hard road towards equality, and we still aren’t there yet.
But I digress. I digress, because even though Bluebeard is a thin book with a light tone, it makes me meditate upon weighty subjects. I have to commend Vonnegut for this, for he has created a book that raises important questions yet still leaves me curiously uplifted. With that secret in the potato barn, I feel like Rabo is saying to us, “Come on, people, let’s get our act together: we can do this!” We can remember the past, learn from the past, and avoid repeating its mistakes. But first we must remove the scales from our eyes and sacrifice our illusions to see the world as it is. And this is where I attempt to connect all of this to the motif of abstract art, which thus far I have lamentably neglected. Rabo can draw so realistically that it is scary; he doesn’t exercise this talent, however, because, “it’s just too fucking easy”. And as we see repeatedly throughout Bluebeard, depicting the world ultra-realistically is not the same thing as seeing it. Sometimes a strip of tape is secretly six deer in a forest glade.