Quirky, spirited, screwball, all words used to describe The Portable Veblen, the second novel by Elizabeth McKenzie, an American writer. The book was inventive enough to catch the notice of the judges of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction last year, who placed it on their shortlist. The title is arresting and the novel includes a wicked example of what we used to call the military-industrial complex, a pair of lovers and their dysfunctional families, and a squirrel.
There are three Veblens in this novel: Veblen is a Latin word for squirrel; the philosopher and economist, Thorstein Veblen, who was of Norwegian origin. He invented the phrase ‘conspicuous consumption’. The third Veblen is a young woman, who for reasons that quickly become apparent, hides herself from many social challenges. She works as a temp, and for fun she is learning Norwegian and translating the works of her famous namesake.
The story begins in Palo Alto, California, when Paul Vreeland proposes to Veblen. He is a medical researcher, who is developing a drill to help brain-injured servicemen in the field. She is a temp at the hospital.
And what was her response to his proposal?
Her body quickened, like a tree in the wind. Later, she would remember a filament that passed through her, of being glad she had provided him with happiness, but not really sure how she felt herself.
‘Yes?’ the man said.
The squirrel emitted a screech.
‘Is that a yes? Paul asked.
She managed to say it. Yes. Two human forms became as one, as they advanced to the sidewalk, the route to the cottage on Tasso Street.
Behind them, the squirrel made a few sharp sounds, as if to say he had significant doubts. As if to say, and she couldn’t help translating it in this way: There is a terrible alchemy coming. (4)
This extract illustrates three themes of the story. First, Veblen has been trained to smooth the way for others, ensure they are happy; second she is not in touch with her own feelings; and third, the squirrel comments and provides both Veblen and the reader with judgements about events. Like the squirrel, the reader wants to say – don’t do it!
Both lovers come from very difficult families. Their attitudes and responses to others have been formed in childhood. The narrative is driven by the approaching wedding and marriage, and by Paul’s attempt to conduct his trials and the compromises he must make and are made on his behalf by the pharma company who pay for his research. Sinister events land him in hospital when he finds that his ambitions have led to compromises to the ethics of his research. Fortunately the big pharma executive gets her comeuppance in a very satisfactory way.
The first few chapters delighted me with their lightness of touch and the possibilities of the emerging story. The squirrel’s activities provide an amusing reflection on the couple’s different attitudes to squirrels, the natural world and to their forthcoming marriage.
Veblen talks to squirrels, has done since her troubled childhood. As she becomes more troubled by her approaching wedding she address him more and more frequently and finally takes him on a road trip to visit her father.
The best creation in the novel is Veblen’s hypochondriac mother Melanie. One reviewer (Scarlett Thomas) suggests she is worthy of Dickens, and Melanie is indeed an extravagant character. When Paul is taken to meet her the reader sees why Veblen is unable to push herself forward in conventional ways and seeks to please and appease people she cares for.
Cloris Hutmacher is another rich character, something of a caricature. She exploits the world and everybody in it to her advantage through her family’s company. She entraps Paul and his cranial device and precipitates the climax of the plot.
What I liked
Elizabeth McKenzie is delightfully creative. I enjoyed the squirrel, although as a narrative device he could be irritating.
Veblen’s anxieties about losing her independence and adjusting to another person in her life were a theme that was well developed through this novel. This extract gets to the heart of Veblen’s coping strategies. Veblen finds herself uninterested in her wedding and with self-searching to do.
Until this engagement, Veblen thought she knew what she was about. By thirty, she had managed to put away the simmering loneliness of childhood, finding relief in things outside herself, such as in skilfully tending family members who were scattered and needy, and becoming a secret expert on the life of Thorstein Veblen. To ward off uneasy feelings that crept in at unguarded moments, she’d drawn upon a wide range of materials and activities, keeping up with all major periodicals of the day, typing along to Norwegian films, clipping interesting pictures from magazines for some future project, taking brisk bike rides. And then came Paul and the whole enterprise of their future. Escapist feelings at this point showed a serious breakdown in self-discipline. And strangest of all, right at the moment she should be happiest. (219)
It’s about love, and families and written with great verve and quirkiness. The quirkiness reminded me of Where’d you go, Bernadette? By Maria Semple (2012), also shortlisted for the Baileys Prize (in 2013). I enjoyed The Portable Veblen less as it went on, but some bits were very funny indeed.
But why are there three different covers for the novel, this one for the American edition.
The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie 4th Estate (2016) 422pp
Over to you
The New York Times reviewer thought highly of it, describing it as ‘a novel of festive originality that it would be a shame to miss’.
Have you read it? Any thoughts to add?
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