The Portable Veblen, by Elizabeth McKenzie
By way of Anne Lamott, we know the novelist Ethan Canin once remarked, “Nothing holds a story together better than a likable narrator.” Lamott went further (in the slim but influential memoir of writing, Bird by Bird), that a likable narrator is comparable to someone you love spending time with, no matter what it is they’re doing. Pick up Elizabeth McKenzie’s bestselling The Portable Veblen, and be assured the winsome Veblen Amundsen-Hovda is all that—and more. She’s the adorably imaginative and slightly off-kilter thirty year-old who sews all her own clothes, cuts her own hair, and has an endearing tendency for anthropomorphic projection—onto just about anything.
The daughter of a demanding mother (whose Mensa-caliber IQ can’t dispel her hypochondriac streak) and a father who’s mentally unstable, Veblen happily does rote admin work at Stanford while pouring her heart into unpaid translation for the Norwegian Diaspora Project in Oslo. She lives alone in a rented but extremely valuable Palo Alto cottage she’s rescued from ruination—until she meets Paul Vreeland, a brilliant young doctor engaged in neurology research at Stanford. He too, is one of those characters you’d happily accompany on their journeys—he’s sweet and somewhat hapless despite his talent and ambition. As the novel opens, he’s just proposed to Veblen, proclaiming his love for her and her quirks of habit (“And you know that thing you do, when telemarketers call and you sort of retch like you’re being strangled and hang up?…I love it.”)
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As we soon learn, their engagement is imperiled—not by their differences, but by their commonality. Both are the offspring of freewheeling, sixties-era parents whose unconventional child-rearing practices have an outsize influence. Paul grew up in a commune-like setting in Humboldt County, rife with days-long pot binges, where strangers crashed on the living floor and the freshly pureed apple juice was laced with LSD. His parents, now in their sixties, care for Paul’s younger, developmentally disabled brother, a source of longtime tension in the family dynamic. Paul’s lifelong aim to escape, and best, his parents’ choices leads him to medical school, and the development of cutting edge (so to speak) technology. As the novel opens, he’s seeking sponsorship for research of a medical device for battlefield intervention of brain trauma, “The Swiss Army knife of brain injury.” He finds said sponsorship in the form of a wily heiress named Cloris Hutmacher, whose Hutmacher Pharmaceuticals fast-tracks the enterprise (handily dispensing with Paul’s meticulous prep for medical trials). The plotline is a satiric take on the dangerous mix of Big Pharma, Silicon Valley dealings, and the mind-boggling amounts of financial capital that drive industrial investment.
The novel doesn’t center on the folly of California’s high tech ventures, but rather the particular dread at the intersection of past and future that comes with the prospect of marriage. How can Veblen maintain a long term relationship, she wonders, when her mother is the dominant force in her life? Or as Paul succinctly puts it: “Somehow I got the sense she’s jealous of you…And that maybe you feel like you have to have a strange life so that you don’t surpass her.”
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One way her mother, Melanie, has kept her influence on Veblen is through her name. Named for Thorstein Veblen, the Wisconsin-born Norwegian American economist and social critic seems to have secured Veblen’s place in the social order as an out-of-the-norm girl. It’s another of Melanie’s esoteric choices in a lifetime of them that continue to exert their influence on her daughter.
McKenzie, the author of Stop That Girl, a collection of short stories, and MacGregor Tells the World, is herself an original, a writer with a range that encompasses humor, emotional insight, and the charmingly original take on things we think we know well—the way the ocean looks, teenage love, the pleasure of a solitary supper. Portraying Veblen’s worry that entanglement with her mother will prevent any sort of long-term relationship McKenzie writes, “She began to realize she hadn’t been looking for a love affair, but rather a human safe house from her mother.” And, “A life could be spent like an apology—to prove you had been worth it,” observations that are as deft as they are revealing.
McKenzie also writes wonderfully about California, with an eye that recalls Stegner and Didion: “The warm light of late afternoon blued after the sun dipped behind the coastal ranges. Around them the sycamores, liquid amber, and magnolias darkened.” The Portable Veblen portrays California as its own character, with its flora and fauna, a landscape that persists despite migration and development. Here’s Velben biking one afternoon through her Palo Alto neighborhood: “Ground squirrels raced back and forth over the path, barely escaping her wheels. She avoided the basking earthworms on the shores of rain puddles. Her tires crunched the russet husks that had fallen from the palms in the rain. Nature was irrepressible, and should be.”
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The story unwinds in the accruing complications between Veblen’s worries about marriage and Paul’s increasingly unmanageable medical trial, which allows McKenzie to braid her interest in technology, nature, and human relationship: “Unhappy that Paul was stuffing a trap into her attic, registering a loss of control that would come with a growing relationship and further compromise, she began to think bitterly about how phenomena in the natural world no longer inspired reverence and reflection, but translated instead into excuses for shopping sprees. Squirrels = trap. Winter’s ragged hand = Outdoor World. Summer’s dog days reigned = Target. Same with traditions—marriage was preceded by the longest shopping list of all, second only to the one after the birth of offspring.”
Take note too, of the squirrel on the cover. Squirrel data, lore, and myth, including Beatrix Potter’s classic contribution, figure heavily in this story, as does the character of the squirrel to whom Veblen confides. The species has a big role to play in this beguiling novel, at times taking on the role of a Greek chorus. Can a novelist do that? McKenzie can.
Elizabeth McKenzie was recently named, along with author Michael Chabon, winner of the California Book Award. Read more here.