Contemporary Literature


by: Kurt Vonnegut

This is the first book off my 2013 to-read list – and it’s only June.  I’ve been meaning to read Vonnegut for a while, as all my college friends seem to love him.

Bluebeard is the fiction memoirs of Rabo Karabekian, an explosive failure in the Abstract Expressionist movement.  It flows seamlessly between Rabo’s present-day life, as 71 yr old wealthy, retired artist, and his past, as the first-born child of Armenian immigrants with hopes of becoming a great artist. Rabo served in World War II, was in New York during the explosion of the American artistic movement, and served somewhat as a Gertrude Stein to the budding artists, ending up completely accidentally with the greatest collection of Abstract Expressionist paintings in the world.

I actually didn’t like this book as much as I expected, though I liked it for reasons I didn’t expect.  For some reason, I thought that Vonnegut would be difficult to read, full of complicated metaphors or abstract notions, but it’s not.  Instead, he’s neither simple, nor complicated, an easy to follow writer who masterfully handles the transitions between time periods.  The writing is easy and entertaining, with Vonnegut using a wry touch to deal with themes like loss, war, and failure.  (This whole book is mostly about failure, now that I think about it. Well, failure and war.)

But the book itself was rather overdone.  The wry comments and cynical observations are too heavy-handed for my taste.  It just all needed to be toned down a few notches.  At the beginning there were lots of italics.  And tons of exclamation points!  They petered out as the book went on, so maybe Vonnegut was using them to showcase development in writing ability?  Nonetheless, they didn’t go with the sophisticated voice of the narrator and annoyed me greatly.  (Not enough to make me put down the book, though.)  There were also many blanket statements meant to demonstrate Rabo’s cynicism and disdain, especially towards the younger generation.  (As a member of the younger generation, though not the younger generation Rabo refers to, I often find these statements less than amusing anyways.)

Overall, the book suffers from a lack of subtlety.  The topics Vonnegut does use a lighter touch with, such as World War II, he does wonderfully.  I would classify this as a war story, though one of the more off-beat ones.  Though Kabo treats his time serving rather cavalierly, and though he never really saw combat, much of the resolution of the novel is him dealing with his wartime experiences.

As for Kabo himself, he’s an odd character.  He has no contact with his family, he is fabulously rich with money, property, and his art collection; he is once-divorced and once-widowed; and he owns 1/4th of a football team.  Everything except the art collection is due to his second wife.  He was once famous as a painter but that failed spectacularly; he married and had two sons but failed there as well; he was wounded in the war before he was able to act; and most of his friends are dead. Kabo’s life is one of failure, for the most part, but he is reasonably content as an old man.  Though Kabo talks frequently about those he’s in relationships with, the reader never really gets a sense of any other character beyond a defining characteristic or two.  One feels as if they are fully fleshed people; we are just presented with Kabo’s rather one-dimensional view of them.  The one other major character in the novel, the widow Circe Berman, I rather disliked.  She was pushy and bossy and demanding of others while not really dealing with her own life, or at least seemed that way to me.  She is the one who pushes Kabo into writing his autobiography and acts as a catalyst for the story.

The ending is probably the best part of the book.  It, almost without meaning to, ties the entire book together.  It gives  meaning depth to both the story and Kabo that aren’t easily apparent in the rest of the story.  Rereading this book would be quite a different experience than the first read.  (Also, don’t Wikipedia the plot line.  There aren’t any big twists, but the book is better letting it develop as you read.)

In short, if you like modern American literature with an easy to read style or fictional autobiographies, you should give this a try. I’m going to go ahead and say if you like war stories, you should read this – just trust me and make it all the way through to the end.  If you’re a big fan of subtlety and drawn out metaphors or you like upstanding, active protagonists, than perhaps this isn’t the book for you.



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