Published by Penguin Press
Publication date: January 19th 2016
To say that The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie gets nutty is not a derogatory comment because Veblen, the main character, is obsessed with squirrels. As in talk to them, think they’re talking to her, anthropomorphize them. Her fiancé Paul is not as fond of them, but as a research neurologist who has created a medical device that will revolutionize the management of brain trauma injuries on the battlefield he has bigger things to worry about. In order to be the success he dreams of being his device needs FDA approval which entails costly trials and time. When the daughter of the founder of a giant pharmaceutical company takes an interest in his work he can’t understand why Veblen isn’t excited about their imminent wealth and would still rather spend most of her time researching her namesake, the obscure and unusual economist, Thorstein Veblen.
McKenzie plays coy and waits until around page 100 to slam the reader with the fullness of family dysfunctionality in Veblen and Paul’s lives. That both of them come from parents who veer so far from normality that it can’t be seen is enough to take the novel into uncharted territory. His father is a socialist who raised him in a commune in Northern California where growing pot was one source of income and also led to frequent police raids. His older brother is developmentally disabled, but Paul believes his disabilities are faked, done solely to get attention. All of this fills Paul with a latent rage against non-conformity and a surprising lack of compassion. Veblen’s mother is a hypochondriacal narcissist who divorced her father long ago and married a man whose sole function in life is to ensure that she is never ‘stressed’ in any way. Veblen’s father is a vet whose PTSD presents as extreme paranoia and violence. All of these characters are meant to come together for their wedding which is a clue as to how things are going to culminate.
McKenzie has a swinging grace with words and phrases—creating combinations not seen before—a trait that always grabs me in an author, but like the squirrels, The Portable Veblen becomes chittering and unnerving as she decides to unearth a treasure trove of oddities that go far beyond plausibility. I was onboard with the satirical aspects of consumerism, war, and the pharmaceutical industry, but in the rush to score points against these targets her characters are left to become caricatures. What started as quirky and whimsical became eccentric became problematic. As the plot exploded into the farcical I was left unable to care. The squirrels may have been speaking to Veblen but not to me.