The Portable Veblen, by Elizabeth McKenzie

Cover of The Portable Veblen: A squirrel on a blue background. The title and author appear in speech bubbles above and below him, and he holds a speech bubble reading "a novel."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 FugitiveWill 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.

Other reviews: New York Times, Guardian

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6 Responses to The Portable Veblen, by Elizabeth McKenzie

  1. Rohan says:

    You certainly make the book sound charming. I’m a bit afraid to read that de Botton piece in full — too late now, after all!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      It skirted the edge of TOO weird and quirky (kind of Manic Pixie Dream Book) and got awfully close a few times, but in the end it won me over because there was some ballast in the exploration of family relationships and forging your own identity.

  2. Ha, you know, I’ve read a few reviews of this book, and either they didn’t mention that the protagonist talks to a squirrel and hears it talk back, or I just didn’t take it in. Weird! Weird but charming.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin is an important text in my family. 😉 So I loved the whole concept of the Nutkinistas, wacky as it was. One review I read said that rather than being a sign of mental illness, talking to the squirrel keeps Veblen sane, and I think that’s about right, though I’m not entirely sure what to make of it.

      The whole scene when she takes the squirrel on the road trip and then butt-answers Paul’s call and he thinks she’s with another man–well, that was one that veered between hilarious and too wacky, but it also seemed to make a point about how easy it is to make assumptions and screw up a good thing, without being too heavy-handed.

  3. Sunita says:

    I am not good with whimsy, care not about squirrels, and I can’t stand de Botton (has anyone made *more* of a career out of spurious profundity?), but almost you convince me to pick this up. In a weird way, it sounds like the white middle-class version of The Sellout, with its barely contained OTT-ness belying the very serious core (and also the writing talent). Hmmm. Maybe? I read the reviews you linked to and a couple of others, and even the mixed one at the FT saw the strengths you did.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I can’t believe I was quoting de Botton, but it did fit so well with the novel.

      I realized on Monday that the book was due at the library Saturday, so I blasted through 400 pages in 3 days. Whether I would have appreciated it so much if read more slowly, I’m not sure.

      It’s funny, I’m not a fan of whimsy generally either, and I prefer conventional realism for my reading, but I’ve been reading a lot of more experimental or over the top narratives lately. I’d say this is a far more conventional story, at its core, than The Sellout, but there is some similarity too (you might enjoy the Palo Alto stuff, because like The Sellout, only to a lesser degree, this is also a book about California). It also reminded me a bit of Mislaid by Nell Zink, especially the hippie parents, although I’d say the “messages” in McKenzie’s book are again more conventional. But maybe it reminded me most of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (a book I love), although this is more whimsical–a book that’s basically a comic family story, but with some OTT plotting grafted on.

      Maybe my reading taste is shifting. I’ve certainly found it rewarding lately to read books like this that aren’t normally my thing.

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