The cover of Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen, baby blue, bubble-gum pink, and daffodil yellow, with a drawing of a squirrel, gives you some sense of the book’s quirky charm. (Words like “antic,” squirrely words, come to mind). Did you note the speech bubbles? Our heroine, Veblen, talks to a squirrel, and hears him talk back.
Does this make the book sound unbearably twee? I thought it avoided that, though sometimes just barely. It’s a romantic comedy, a family drama, a satire of sorts of conspicuous consumption, Big Pharma, and the military-industrial complex. It is quirky and oddball, and often very funny. But under all the oddball quirks, its depiction of two people–Veblen and her fiancé, Paul–trying to come to terms with their pasts and figure out who they are so that they can make a future together is moving and real.
Last week’s New York Times featured a piece by Alain de Botton titled “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.” Partly, he says, it’s because we’re all a bit nutty–acorny? (who can resist the squirrel-related jokes?):
We seem normal only to those who don’t know us very well. In a wiser, more self-aware society than our own, a standard question on any early dinner date would be: “And how are you crazy?”
This is something Paul and Veblen might have been wise to ask each other. And they probably should have inquired about each other’s parents, too. Often, de Botton goes on, we choose wrong because we’re trying, unconsciously, to recreate the messed-up relationships of the families we grew up in. But it’s OK; we can make that mess work.
Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate differences with generosity that is the true marker of the “not overly wrong” person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.
You may well not agree with de Botton; I mostly do. But I was reminded of his words as I read The Portable Veblen, which seemed to take a similar view. Veblen, who is not at all sure about becoming engaged, thinks things like
Was this the stuff married life would be made of, two people making way for the confounding spectacle of the other, bewildered and slightly afraid?
Paul and Veblen love each other, but they don’t want the same things. Paul is striving to escape his hippie family and aiming for the mainstream success that will assuage his feelings of inadequacy. He has developed a device for doing battlefield craniotomies, and is wooed away from Stanford by Hutmacher Pharmaceuticals–and in particular by Cloris Hutmacher–where he falls into moral quagmires involving shoddy research and backroom deals with government agencies. It gets bad enough that someone reminds him of the plot of The Fugitive. Will he come to his senses in time to keep Veblen?
Veblen, meanwhile–who is named for the “witty critic of capitalism” Thorstein Veblen–has little interest in material things. She has grown up placating her narcissistic, hypochondriac mother and is an inveterate peace-keeper and “cheerer-upper.” Paul seems to love her in some ways because she reminds him of his own family, but he wants to remake her, too, as he is remaking himself. Can Veblen learn to stand up for herself and her desires, or will she be miserably subsumed into Paul’s life?
Did I frame that enough like a romance blurb? Ever since I started reading genre romance, I’ve been interested in literary fiction that explores some of the same territory, and that was certainly true here. Despite the “larger” economic themes and references to Thorstein Veblen and William James, this story is at heart a conventional courtship plot. It may open with the betrothal, but Paul and Veblen haven’t yet overcome the obstacles to being happy together. For a while, I didn’t think they would and wasn’t sure I wanted them to. But this is a romantic comedy, in every sense (I guess that’s a spoiler, but romance readers know it’s the journey to the happy ending, not the ending itself, that is surprising and interesting).
Like de Botton, Veblen finds her way to a more hopeful view of marriage than she had at the start:
A wedding is the time and place to recognize the full clutch of the past in the negotiation of a shared future. Try devoting a few pages to that, Brides magazine!
Quirky and goofy but thoughtful and full of heart, The Portable Veblen was very satisfying.