BLUEBEARD By Kurt Vonnegut Delacorte. 300 pp. $17.95
BACK IN 1969 when Great Britain abolished the halfpenny and a man walked on the Moon, a collection of molecules called Kurt Vonnegut published another collection of molecules called Slaughterhouse-Five. People fought in the streets to buy it, because this second arrangement of molecules was not random. It had a message for our time. The message was "So it goes."
Every now and then since that time, new arrangements of molecules have appeared from the same source. Or are they rearrangements? Certainly, there have been changes. The narrator of Bluebeard, a one-eyed American painter of Armenian extraction called Rabo Karabekian, does not say "So it goes"; he says "So be it! So be it!"
And where the time-traveling optometrist in Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim, often visits Dresden where there was a massacre, Karabekian only visits it once. Karabekian's massacre was somewhere else; his parents were in it; it was a "massacre by the Turkish Empire of about one million of its Armenian citizens." (But Karabekian's massacre is a bit similar, because falling from the mouth of one dead old woman and taken by his mother were "diamonds and emeralds and rubies," not unlike the "diamonds and emeralds and rubies" in Slaughterhouse-Five that Paul Lazzaro takes from the dead.)
Philosophically, too, the novels differ. In Slaughterhouse-Five the Tralfamadorians drain the universe of meaning because all moments of time are coexistent and thus everything is predestined and there is no free will. In Bluebeard the universe is predestined for at least one character and probably all of them on the quite different grounds that he is that kind of molecule. "And what is literature, Rabo," he said, "but an insider's newsletter about affairs relating to molecules, of no importance to anything in the Universe but a few molecules who have the disease called 'thought.' "
What a witty old reductionist (65 this year) Kurt Vonnegut is, to be sure.
Bluebeard is the story of Karabekian's life, an autobiography which is also a diary of his last summer. Karabekian knows a lot about the meaning (or otherwise) of things, because his great skill is the photographic-seeming reproduction of reality with a paintbrush. "My mind was so ordinary, which is to say empty, that I could never be anything but a reasonably good camera."
What he wanted, however, was to be an Abstract Expressionist like his buddies, Terry Kitchen (who was not a character in the real world) and Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock (who were).
Abstract Expressionists are appropriate icons for a Vonnegut hero, since their works, according to Karabekian's difficult friend the Widow Berman, are about "absolutely nothing," or according to Karabekian himself, "about nothing but themselves."
In the fairy tale Bluebeard killed every wife who peeked into his secret room and added her to the collection which was the room's centerpiece. Karabekian is a Bluebeard who keeps something in a locked potato barn.
Everybody wants to know what the rich old Armenian-American one-eyed ex-soldier and illustrator and designer of camouflage is keeping there. To understand what is actually there you have to understand why Karabekian was not a good abstract expressionist. It was because his constructs of Windsor Blue Sateen Duza-Luxe and tape on canvas had no soul.
I'll tell you this much. The contents of the locked potato barn bear not just on the question of soul, but also on the ultimate importance in the absurd scheme of things of the collections of molecules called humans, books and paintings.
IT MAY BE that some readers will find the ending beautiful. I found it sentimental, and wish I could say that the Widow Berman (who appears to survive the experience) felt the same way. But what can you expect of a woman too philistine to appreciate the abstract expressionists, whose preferred art form is chromos of little girls in swings?
The question of whether or not Vonnegut prefers chromos of little girls in swings may never be resolved, but I have my suspicions.
Slaughterhouse-Five was a novel in which the overt message of nihilism was stretched productively tight like a violin string tied to the wit and vigor of the message's expression. The tone of Vonnegut's narrative voice was redolent of good parties. Slaughterhouse-Five was about death in much the same way as that jolly old song "Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones" is about death.
In Bluebeard, a book in which the body is often described as "meat," there is no longer a productive tension between the forces of life and the forces of entropy. The vigorous voice has sunk into self-parody; nervous tics disfigure it; the prose suffers a species of St. Vitus dance, which we may recall is itself the Dance of Death.
Of course there are good bits. Nobody can deny that Vonnegut is a real writer. The Widow Berman is a genuine comic creation, but poor old Karabekian the narrator, who speaks with much the same voice that Vonnegut narrators have spoken in for years, is not.
There is a sense in which the novel Bluebeard is itself a locked room within which we might expect some frightful revelation. Perhaps we get it. The revelation is not that the meaning of the universe is so arbitrary that it can be delineated in the kind of wisecracks that reduce everything to the same lack of value -- genocide and soap powder -- but that it is possible to suppose that Vonnegut thinks so. True, the novel's ending suggests that Karabekian may be wrong to suppose that there is no ghost in his machine, no soul in his meat, but the ghost is thin and pale.
Ho hum. As a murderous, dangerous Bluebeard Vonnegut is, like Karabekian as soldier, husband and artist, a "floparroo." Perhaps there is absolutely nothing in his personal potato barn.
One suspects, however, that somewhere within him, painfully half-suffocated, there is a core of passion. Why else the bitterness of a refrain half way through the book, a refrain that we may well be tempted to apply to its author: "The Emperor has no clothes, the Emperor has no clothes, the Emperor has no clothes."
Peter Nicholls, editor of "The Science Fiction Encyclopedia" and other books, writes frequently about contemporary fiction.