Shortly after finishing The Portable Veblen, I was running an errand in Park Slope when I walked by a friendly-looking squirrel and felt the urge to talk to it, tell it a problem or two. Once you read Elizabeth McKenzie’s delightful and thought-provoking tale of family dysfunction, you understand the inclination.
The title character, Veblen Amundsen-Hovda, is a charming, underachieving thirtyish woman who translates Norwegian documents as a side job and idolizes her namesake, Thorstein Veblen, the economist who coined the term “conspicuous consumption.” She also talks to squirrels, a habit she picked up during an isolated and difficult childhood with a manipulative and hypochondriac mother, Melanie, and an institutionalized father whom she saw infrequently on court-mandated visits.
The novel begins with an arresting first paragraph:
Huddled together on the last block of Tasso Street, in a California town known as Palo Alto, was a pair of humble bungalows, each one aplot in lilies. And in one lived a woman in the slim green spring of her life, and her name was Veblen Amundsen-Hovda.
The writing never quits from there. It is shortly after the New Year when Veblen and her boyfriend, Paul Vreeland, an ambitious neurosurgeon, take a walk by her house (which she fixed up and treasures; it’s her escape from the home she grew up in and her mother). Eying the natural world around her, Veblen has the wish to stop time. Just then, Paul proposes. Though Veblen accepts, she is harboring doubts: “Later, she would remember a filament that passed through her, of being glad she had provided him happiness, but not really sure how she felt herself.” She lends these thoughts to her old friend the squirrel, who witnesses the proposal and “makes a few sharp sounds, as if to say he had significant doubts. As if to say, and she couldn’t help translating it this way: There is a terrible alchemy coming.”
Immediately after the proposal, the fundamental differences between the two lovers become apparent, starting with their view of squirrels. Veblen holds a soft spot for them. When Paul comments that the town is “infested” with squirrels, Veblen says: “I’d rather say it’s rich with squirrels.” Paul is incredulous that the sound of gnawing rodents in the floor above them does not bother Veblen, who feels the urge to remain calm when someone around her is bothered by something—a result of growing up with her high-maintenance mother.
Veblen and Paul haven’t met each other’s families, and it soon becomes clear why. While Veblen has her hands full managing her mother, Paul’s roots have complications, too: his brother, Justin, is mentally handicapped, and Paul has spent most of his life feeling overlooked by his parents, who raised him on a commune and were nudists for a brief period. Paul’s embarrassment about his beginnings is a part of what drives him forward in his career. If they have children, Veblen would prefer they be gritty and scrappy; Paul wants to give them every advantage in the world.
Paul is the inventor of the Pneumatic Turbo Skull Punch, a device that can treat brain injuries on the battlefield. His device catches the eye of a shady pharmaceutical company, Hutmacher, and Paul gets swept up in the attention and excitement, overlooking some of the less savory aspects of the company, which his hippie parents are quick to point out.
It’s a madcap book and I laughed out loud. As Veblen prepares for Paul to meet Melanie, “she reminded herself that all humans were flawed, no family faultless, and whatever happened that day, it was part of the rich tapestry of life,” and that Paul, “who routinely dissected brains, could surely endure her mother too.” The language is lovely, and McKenzie has a knack for always taking a line one step further. After a conflict with Paul, she doesn’t just feel distant, but is “far, far away. On a steamer bound for a penal colony, waving a long farewell, with a small white hankie wet with snot and tears.” As Veblen prepares coffee, “the coffeemaker gurgled and hissed, a tired old friend doing its best.” Paul recalls his days as a bachelor: “Weekends so vast they felt like a graveyard of bones.”
Veblen is full of delightful observations on marriage and finding her place in life: “You could spin until you lost your compass. You could pull together thinking: This is only the beginning, one day it’ll come around.” One night over dinner, Veblen catches Paul throwing away the turkey meatballs she made, after pretending to like them. “It was clear that your choice of mate would shape the rest of your life in ways you couldn’t begin to know. One by one, things he didn’t like would be jettisoned. First squirrels, then turkey meatballs… then— what next? Marriage could be a continuing exercise in disappearances.”
It’s easy to empathize with Veblen’s trepidation. At one point, she finds the squirrel in a trap that Paul set (despite her best efforts to thwart him by replacing the trap’s cheese with things that a squirrel might find unappetizing, like sauerkraut sprinkled with mace) and rescues it, bringing it on a road trip to set it free in a safer place. She stops at a restaurant and is unsettled by a family feeding their children nearby, and then by an old man eating alone. “She wasn’t sure how to live.” She fondly remembers “being little in the backseat, allowed to sleep while they drove through the night. Everyone in the right place, strapped in, looking forward. No one acting out. The passenger years.”
Even the squirrel gets its own point of view briefly, and watches events unfold between Veblen and Paul while considering his own squirrel family issues: “Every family had its burdens. Sato lived with a sadistic blue jay, and Calarak danced at a strip tease. That had been a tough one.”
At 427 pages, the novel probably could have been trimmed. But as it builds to its satisfying conclusion it’s apparent that all the stories and plot twists are essential to the work. The Portable Veblen asks important questions about how to leave our childhoods behind and step into new families, while balancing the ones we were given, and how to embrace the imperfection of living.