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 that is 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 cliches in Slaughterhouse-Five; as a filter through which he can illuminate the savagery, cruelty, and the essentially comic misdirection of human existence.
Readers 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. Readers 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 reader to determine in which genre this book really fits, if any at all.