Bluebeard – 5/5 Stars
It’s funny to me that I read this alongside all the other Kur Vonnegut novels I read when I was younger. I was either in high school or thereabouts for this one. I remember liking it, and not really knowing what to do with it. Like the kids that Rabo Karabekian yells at throughout this novel, what did I know about anything then? And like Rabo, I am sure I still have more to learn.
You might recall Rabo Karabekian from other Vonnegut. He plays a small role in Breakfast of Champions, and is more or less maligned there, where the buying of one his abstract expressionist paintings is seen as a giant waste of money by the town. In this book, we learn that he’d likely agree with you there on that one. For one thing, many of paintings succumbed to the unstable shelf-life of the acrylic paint he used to paint them, in some cases simply applying a single color to gigantic canvases and then selling it. What we come to understand is that Rabo Karabekian is an artist of immense talent. He’s completely skilled in drawing and illustration and terrifically talented in painting, but he has no passion, no impression, and nothing to say. That is until he begins writing his autobiography, which we’re reading, by the challenge of a brassy YA novelist he comes to live in his Hampton’s beachhouse the summer after her husband has died. He’s lost two wives at this point: one to divorce and one to death, and Vonnegut spares us the need to try to make this a romance. Instead, it’s a fraught attempt at friendship, and it’s maybe one of the realest of his life. Karabekian is the son of two Armenian genocide survivors who moved to California through being taken by a scam. He’s sent to be the protégé of a famous Armenian artist, who will later die in Fascist Italy fighting for Mussolini. He will fall in love with this artist’s wife. He will become first a failed painter, and then a famous art collector, and through all this we will learn of his attempts throughout life, but failed and successful to learn how to be more kind. And because this book is called Bluebeard, we will be tempted throughout by the secret he’s storing in his potato shed. This is Kurt Vonnegut at his most Wallace Stegner, and it might have just become a frontrunner for my favorite of his books.
Breakfast of Champions – 3/5 Stars
This is one of the first books I ever read in a single day. This ended up being a little more serendipitous than I thought since the book is housed within a single weekend and there’s a kind of frenetic pacing to the whole thing where in the space of the whole book you finally understand enough of the whole setting, the characters, and the plot to move forward, but that by the time you’re done understanding it’s all over. It’s always very clearly middle-period Vonnegut, where Slaughterhouse Five is the transitionary work between early failed writer Vonnegut of Mother Night, Player Piano, and The Sirens of Titan, and the middle period of this, Slapstick, and various other, before you get to late Vonnegut of Galapagos, Timequake, and Bluebeard. I don’t think I loved this one as much this time as I did when I was younger and that’s fine by me.
A great moment in the audiobook is that it ends with an interview in which the interviewer teases Vonnegut about how bad the movie version is and Vonnegut wholly agrees with him.
In the audiobook version, you don’t get Stanley Tucci telling you “this is a picture of an asshole”. Sigh.
Armageddon in Retrospect – 2/5 Stars
A collection of war writings by Vonnegut that range from nonfictions speeches and essays about war, especially the Iraq/Afghanistan Wars of the early 2000s, and then otherwise unpublished short stories from the 1950s and 1960s, usually about WWII. Anyone who has read various of Vonnegut’s novels is already aware of how being a soldier was probably the biggest, influential part of his life (especially that of his writing life). He says in one speech from a different collection that being in Dresden during the firebombing was one of the most fortunate things in his life. He doesn’t just mean surviving, because you get the impression he would have been more or less ok with dying in it, but in being there as a witness because through that trauma he shaped his brain in such a way to truly understand the depravity that humans are capable of, and how wasteful the US could be of their just mission in the war. He also mentions in several places that WWII was the last, and maybe only just war that the US has been involved with. And that the US wasted that cachet almost immediately.
In this collection, that shaping and fury and importance are still present in his writing. But as his son tells us in the opening essay, the mind isn’t all there anymore. And that’s ok. There’s a loving and generous spirit in both Kurt Vonnegut and in his writing, but the writing in this collection is often generous of heart, and lacking in sense and cohesion. The essay by Mark Vonnegut is probably the best part of the book because it provides clear insight into the man and father of Kurt Vonnegut, while the writing is either the last vestiges, or unpublished work that could have stayed that way.
Cat’s Cradle – 5/5 Stars
Possibly the Kurt Vonnegut novel where the most stuff happens. It also reads a lot like something of a Thomas Pynchon or Anthony Burgess novel as a consequence. I see most Vonnegut novels as a series of layered circles where the action and plot are one circle, the narration another, various ideas and motifs another, and they all sort of happen at the same time and are repeated, referred back to, remembered etc over and over. But here, similar to Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, there’s a kind of quest happening as our narrator, researching a book, does things like: go to a place, talk with people, go to another place, have a revolution, etc. And so the feel of reading this novel feels a lot different from others. Obviously, famously in Slaughterhouse Five the structure is more like a flattened circle ala all events in time have all already happened, so there’s no movements, just revisiting.
In much of Vonnegut’s nonfiction he likes to look at the famous Karl Marx quote religion being the opiate of the people in terms of it being a positive, that is, opium, whose job is pain relief, then religion fulfills that purpose. Vonnegut talks about how the change in the meaning of opium both definitionally and culturally means that people misunderstand Marx. Similarly, I think the idea of a crutch as a metaphor is weird, because crutches help people walk, but the metaphor is seen as negative. Some people are never able to stop using crutches! Vonnegut explores this idea in this text through the religion of Bokononism. It’s knowingly built on a lie, but it’s there to soothe.
If this isn’t Nice, What is? – 3/5 Stars
A collection of graduation speeches, advice, and other words of wisdom to young people. Like other reviewers mention, this would have been better served as a single video, or more so a chapter in a longer work of Kurt Vonnegut’s nonfiction. Vonnegut’s nonfiction tends to be filled with truisms and wisdom and very little structure. It’s interesting because many times in man of his essays, he mentions that a struggle to write something generally means that you don’t know as much about the idea as you think you do, or you haven’t thought about it as much. This is something I tell my students, and here, we have a lot of wonderful thoughts that were probably wonderfully received (well, mostly), but that don’t work as well as printed essays. It’s gift that these exist in this form, but it’s not always a satisfying collection of writing, especially given it reads almost like a Goldberg Variations on the same speech.
Slapstick – 3/5 Stars
This was a frustrating novel the first time I read it, and was no less frustrating of a novel (although reading it this second time was not actually frustrating so much as disappointing). I really like Vonnegut, and that like is almost universal, so it’s annoying when I end up not liking one. I don’t like this novel very much. My rating is based in deference to Vonnegut as a whole, and the sense that I am a bit of an outlier here.
The prologue to this book remains great as well. There’s a biographical opener to this book that rivals in my mind the wonderful parts of Timequake, another Vonnegut novel that I shouldn’t love according to my rules, but do.