The Portable Veblen a Zany Romp

The Portable Veblen (2016)
By Elizabeth McKenzie
Penguin Books, 428 pages.

Once in a blue moon a novel tumbles from my to-be-read pile, leaps into my hands, and can’t be put down until I finish. Such a book is Elizabeth McKenzie’s utterly charming The Portable Veblen. It is a romantic comedy, but one with more brains than Viktor Frankenstein’s lab. Get this: Its characters include squirrels, two sets of dysfunctional parents, a doctor who wants to be a big-shot player, Big Pharma, and an eccentric young woman named Veblen. And, yes, she is named for the economist Thorstein Veblen, whom she idolizes, though she has no idea why her parents saddled her with such a weird first name. Not that there’s much her mother, father, or step-father do that makes a whole lot of sense.

This is a hard book to review, as almost anything I say will sound ludicrous. Go with the strangeness. Imagine the oddness of A Confederacy of Dunces but with a sweet central character and a mere soupçon of its misanthropy. Veblen Amundsen-Houda is a child of nature in her late 20s who really thinks that a squirrel is trying to communicate with her. She lives in a quirky little cottage in Palo Alto, does some translation work, and is a “freelance self.” Her boyfriend, 34-year-old Paul Vreeland, a neurologist, has just proposed to her. But this is not your standard wedding plan makes people crazy kind of story. There’s more than enough actual craziness with which to contend.

Both Veblen and Paul are the offspring of good hippies/bad parents. Veblen’s mother, Melanie, has an IQ of 185 and the narcissism to go with it. You name the subject and Melanie has an opinion about it, which she shares without filters whether or not you want it. Her biological father, Rudgear, is an institutionalized crank, and her step father, Linus, a calm and well-meaning person who embodies the term “ineffectual.” Veblen’s relentless optimism drives her mother nuts. Melanie worries that her daughter might have some of her father’s insanity genes but then again, Melanie can find fault in everything and everyone, including herself.

Paul is also the product of offbeat parents. Bill and Marion Vreeland are former nudists and far too flaky to settle gently into middle-class life. Paul also has a mentally challenged younger brother, Justin, who does highly inappropriate things that Paul thinks are enabled by his lenient parents. Paul is akin to Alex in the 1980s sitcom Family Ties. He is so desperate to escape his past that he has become serious and strait-laced. He’s quite smart, though, and has invented the Pneumatic Turbo Skull Punch, a device that can relieve traumatic brain pressure. Because of its potential for combat triage, Paul has been courted by the military and Hutmacher, the Big Pharma firm that procures all things medical for the Department of Defense. Paul senses the opportunity for wealth and influence, yet he loves Veblen for her innocence and eccentricity.   

Some matches are made in heaven, but that of Veblen and Paul seems more like it was imagined as a Saturday Night Live sketch. Or maybe not; Elizabeth McKenzie’s writing is much funnier and incisive that anything on SNL in the past few decades. So how can a smart, kind-hearted, free spirit like Veblen–who believes in her namesake’s withering critiques of the leisure class–expect to find marital bliss with a Type-A go getter who hates squirrels, desires a conspicuous consumption lifestyle, has an occasional explosive temper, and seeks to tame her wildness? Yeats once wrote, “the center cannot hold,” and that’s a pretty good way of expressing the coming crisis.

Remember, though, that this is a romantic comedy. I cannot do justice to how any of this plays out without spoiling the fun, so I won’t try. One tantalizing tidbit: key moment involves butt dialing, a squirrel, and a motel room. The Portable Veblen is where family dynamics, social science, and absurdism overlap. It is both poignant and laugh-out-loud hysterical. In a twisted–very twisted–way it’s also about taking the back roads to moral clarity.

Give this one a test read. If nothing else, you will conclude that it is so offbeat that it beggars comparison. My guess is that, like me, you will find it irresistible. You may also find yourself unexpectedly smiling the next time a squirrel raids your bird feeder!

Rob Weir

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