Rabo Karabekian is an artist aging alone in a big house full of modern art. Then one day he finds Circe Berman, a young widow, on his private beach. She urges him to write an autobiography about his life, invites herself to live in his house, and starts asking questions about the locked potato barn on his property. Herein, Rabo unravels his life story and eventually comes to face that barn himself.
Vonnegut doesn’t write bad books. I’ve come to believe that wholeheartedly. I do think sometimes he writes books that aren’t for everyone though, and while I enjoyed this book, there were things that left me wishing for better.
Let me start with Circe Berman. While this wasn’t really a trope when it was written, she smacks of Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She sweeps into Rabo’s life to change it for the better while struggling to be a character herself. It wasn’t until the end that I felt she had really become something besides a catalyst for Rabo, but even that felt weak. Not to mention that when Rabo’s irritation with her built, so did mine, so I struggled to both understand and like her. It didn’t break the book for me, but it was a hurdle.
I also think, and this is my problem more than it is Vonnegut’s, that this book wasn’t strange enough. For someone that’s really known for delivering oddities with a smirk, this didn’t have much of that at all. That’s not to say it wasn’t odd in its way, but the oddness was still within the walls of contemporary literature. I adjusted to it and enjoyed the book, but I think this is a sign of the sort of reputation Vonnegut made for himself as a writer of the wonderfully weird and how hard it was for him to break out.
That said, it was still a wonderful book with all that Vonnegut charm. Vonnegut attempts here to chart his way through the waters of modern art, to talk equally about what someone could see in it and what people may be incapable of seeing in it, and much of that is insightful and hilarious. He talks about war in that way that is unique entirely to him. He tells Rabo’s story the way a man facing his past might: in anecdotes, turning to look at memories only when he is prepared for them, and it works.
I always feel personally rewarded when I read Vonnegut, and this was no exception.