The Portable Veblen

I’ll be honest here, I picked this book by its cover.  An embossed silhouette of a squirrel on white, filled with “YES MAYBE NO”, with an enthusiastic endorsement quote by Karen Joy Fowler: Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen couldn’t be any more intriguing to me.  It turned out to be an intelligent, sly, delightful book.  A curious heroine, some whimsy mixed with cynicism, a tightly focused story that incidentally tells the tale of the society we live in: McKenzie is like a decent Jonathan Franzen, if possible, in the best way possible.

The title’s namesake, our heroine, is perhaps best introduced by the narrator.  The book opens on the scene of her proposal:


“Such was the engagement of Veblen Amundsen-Hovda, independent behaviourist, experienced cheerer-upper, and freelance self, who was having a delayed love affair with the world due to an isolated childhood and various interferences since.  At thirty she still favoured baggy oversized boy’s clothes, a habit as hard to grow out of as imaginary friends.”

Everyone here means well but stuffs it up a bit.  Her fiancée Paul – rebelling too hard from being the son of good hippies; her mother – a narcissistic hypochondriac who smothers her with love; her step-father, whose love of her mother enables this behaviour; and even Veblen herself by constantly trying to keep everyone happy.

Through some historical quirk Veblen was named after Thorstein Veblen, and has emerged as a passionate defender of the anti-consumerist views of her namesake, and an amateur translator of Norwegian.  She is also quite sure there is a plucky grey squirrel that has started following her around, understanding everything she says.

“She sat up in bed and it seemed quite natural to speak to the animal through the windowpane, though it had been a long while since she had known any squirrels…With her hand unadorned, she felt free to place the ups of her fingers on the glass where the squirrel’s hand was pressed.  The squirrel studied her with warm brown eyes, as if to as: How well do you know yourself, and all the choices you make?  As if to tell her, I was cut loose form a hellish marriage, and I want to meet muckrakers, carousers, the sweet-toothed, and the lion-hearted, and you don’t know it yet but you are all of these.”

Veblen is the kind of soul who has created her own private world to define herself, while she is shaped and pushed by those around her.  Of course, Paul and her mother only mean the best for her, but their best is defined by their own concerns, not Velben’s intense, beautiful little inner world.  Sure, she’s a little mad, but it is a delight to be bought into this place with some honesty, some sparkle.  And don’t we all want to be a muckraker, a carouser, sweet-toothed, lion-hearted?

There is a wonderful plot here.  Paul is a no-nonsense high-flying neuroscientist who is getting dangerously close to a pharmaceuticals empire because of his work to minimise battlefield brain trauma.  He is promised fame and fortune with a deal with the Department of Defence; his ego is flattered as he is wooed and finally given the recognition he logically believes his work deserves.  With that much money and politics and ego pushing him along, what could possible go wrong?

But, like Franzen, the plot and what happens here doesn’t matter as much as the narration, the characters, the depth and delight.  McKenzie is a fantastic writer, and it is her style that makes me liken her to Franzen (who has increasingly fallen out of my favour these days).   It’s the intensity of gaze which mirrors or transforms into a wider social point that they have in common.  There is a microscopic interest on the characters’ inner lives, on the secrets they hold even from themselves and when this is done well it almost feels like a privilege as a reader to be let into this world.

The Portable Veblen is very funny and in the end, slyly profound.  It is an adventure through the wonderful little warped mind of Veblen, through the capitalist machine, through mortality and mental heath, through mad families, through love, war and philosophy.  It was an odd, delightful book.

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