Cover of first edition (hardcover)
|LC Class||PS3572.O5 B5 1987|
Bluebeard, the Autobiography of Rabo Karabekian (1916-1988) is a 1987 novel by best-selling author Kurt Vonnegut. It is told as a first person narrative and describes the late years of fictional Abstract Expressionist painter Rabo Karabekian, who first appeared as a minor character in Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions (1973). Circumstances of the novel bear rough resemblance to the fairy tale of Bluebeard popularized by Charles Perrault. Karabekian mentions this relationship once in the novel.
At the opening of the book, the narrator, Rabo Karabekian, apologizes to the arriving guests: "I promised you an autobiography, but something went wrong in the kitchen..." He describes himself as a museum guard who answers questions from visitors coming to see his priceless collected art. He shares the lonely home with his live-in cook and her daughter, Celeste.
One afternoon, Circe Berman wanders onto Karabekian's private beach. When he reaches out to greet her, she catches him by surprise with the forward statement "Tell me how your parents died." He tells her the story and proceeds to invite her back to his home for a drink. After a drink and supper, Karabekian invites her to stay with him, as Paul Slazinger does. After a time, he begins to find her charm "manipulative", as she typically gets her way. Mrs. Berman does not respect his abstract art collection, including works by Jackson Pollock. She explores every inch of Karabekian's home, constantly asking him questions. The only place that is off-limits to her is the potato barn.
The potato barn is the home of Karabekian's studio and holds his "secret". The barn has no windows, and Karabekian has gone through the trouble of nailing one end shut and immobilizing the other with six padlocks. The mystery of the potato barn has enticed collectors to make outrageous offers and to raise suspicions of stolen masterpieces. Upon help from Berman, Karabekian comes to a realization in his life, that he was merely afraid of people, and opens the painting in the potato barn to the public.
A number of critics have suggested that the possibility of creating art with meaning is a major theme in Bluebeard. According to David Rampton in "Studies in Contemporary Fiction," Circe Berman's approaching Rabo with the challenge of making meaningful, moral art is Vonnegut himself directly addressing meaninglessness in art by asking for "committed art." Rampton also proposed that Vonnegut may be questioning the possibility of truly moral art by writing about the lack of morality in the lives of many artists. Critics have also said that meaningful art is Karabekian's way of battling his own demons. Donald Morse said that Karabekian's accomplishment in the novel is realising that "through self-acceptance, and the serious use of imagination and creativity, human beings can become reconciled to their weaknesses while still remaining outraged at human greed." Morse added that Karabekian's final masterpiece, "Now It's the Women's Turn," achieves the goal of meaningful art by developing a backstory for each of the 5,219 characters in the composition before painting it.
Other themes that critics have discussed are Survivor's syndrome, family, and relationships with women. One critic wrote that Rabo escapes the Survivor's syndrome that his parents suffered from by painting "Now It's the Women's Turn." It has also been said that Karabekian's mission in the narrative is to find a family that he feels a part of, which he achieves with the army and the Abstract Expressionism community. Lastly, women are certainly a theme in Bluebeard. New York Times writer Julian Moynahan said that Circe Berman sees Karabekian's main life struggle as strained relationships with women.
Bluebeard received positive reviews from many critics. Some considered the novel a milestone in Vonnegut's career; Philadelphia Inquirer called it "Vonnegut at his edifying best," and the Chicago Tribune said it was "a major breakthrough for Vonnegut," and "a new and vital phase in his career." Newsday said it was "worth reading twice," and Atlanta Journal & Constitution wrote that "Bluebeard ranks with [Vonnegut's] best and goes one step beyond."
Bluebeard was also met with significantly negative reception. Julian Moynahan wrote in a New York Times book review that Bluebeard was a "minor achievement" and that Vonnegut "isn't moving ahead." In Library Journal, the novel is identified as "not among [Vonnegut's] best." 
There were several unique aspects of the style in which Vonnegut wrote Bluebeard. Donald Morse identified a difference between Bluebeard and other Vonnegut's novels, which was that the protagonist was happy and satisfied at the end of the narrative. Morse also said that Karabekian as a writer is very similar to Vonnegut as a writer, and that the criticism Circe Berman gives to Karabekian about his writing is a parallel to the issues critics have with Vonnegut's writing.
In the novel several of Karabekian's paintings are described in detail. The first is a photo-realistic painting of Dan Gregory's studio. The second is an abstract painting of a lost Arctic explorer and a charging polar bear. It consists of a white background with two strips of tape, one white, one orange. The third painting is of six deer and a hunter, titled "Hungarian Rhapsody Number Six" which later fell apart in storage at the Guggenheim Museum. The scene is represented by a greenish-orange background with six brown strips of tape for the deer on one side, and one strip of red tape on the opposite side for the hunter. His most famous, which once hung in the lobby of GEFFCo headquarters on Park Avenue, is titled "Windsor Blue Number Seventeen." The entire painting consisting of eight 8×8 panels hung side by side displays nothing but the paint by Sateen Dura-Luxe in the shade of the title of the work. The painting however literally fell apart when the Sateen Dura-Luxe began to shred itself from the canvas upon which it was painted becoming Rabo Karabekian's biggest embarrassment as an abstract expressionist. These very panels upon which Windsor Blue used to cover fully became the canvases Karabekian would prime back to pure white and use for his last work locked within his potato barn.
The last painting is the secret in the potato barn. The painting is an enormous photo-realistic picture of Karabekian's experience of World War II where he and 5,219 other prisoners of war, gypsies, and concentration camp victims were dumped in a valley when the German forces realized that the war was lost. The painting, which becomes enormously successful as a tourist attraction, is meant to be the only painting that Karabekian created which contained "soul".