This book hit me at exactly the right time in my life. I had to read Slaughterhouse Five for a high school class, and then I read any Vonnegut I could get my hands on, and then the year I graduated from high school Bluebeard was released. I bought it in hardcover, with money I had saved fro my job bagging groceries. So fair warning: I'm more than a little sentimental when it comes to this book.
Bluebeard is the story of Rabo Karabekian, a failed Abstract Expressionist painter and a minor character from Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. Karabekian is a skilled illustrator who refuses to draw, instead spreading a single shade onto large canvases before adding colored strips of tape. His life falls apart more quickly than his painting career, but in his advanced age he is conned into writing his autobiography by an unwanted house guest, Circe Berman, who is secretly a writer of a string of best-sellers for young adults.
Ultimately, however, this book is not about Karabekian as much as it is about art, and about the struggle to produce something of lasting value. Mrs. Berman provides a host of writing advice for any budding author, including how to write well and with high standards: “You don’t write for the whole world, and you don’t write for ten people, or two. You write for just one person.” I understood that as a young man of 18, but the book’s greater message eluded me until years later, when I read it again.
Vonnegut presents the creation of any art as a struggle between the soul (the inspiration to create, and how to capture ‘soul’ within the art) and the meat (the physical requirements to actually create the artwork). I didn’t know what that meant then, but I think I do now.
For many years, my writing waited around for soul. While thinking of myself as a writer, I didn’t actually write much of anything, because I lacked the inspiration to do so. I learned later on that most of writing is meat; you have to actually do it, even when you think there’s nothing to do. Set your meat in front of the typewriter and bang out a few pages of words. Do that regularly. Do it every day, if you can. Eventually, when your meat develops good habits, you will find that you had soul all along.
In terms of art, anyone who wishes to be an artist of any kind could learn from these pages. In terms of story...well. I don't like to include spoilers. Suffice it to say that when Rabo Karabekian’s meat finally finds his soul, you will reaffirm your belief that Vonnegut is one of the all-time greats.