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


1917 is an Absolute Masterpiece

1917 (2019)
Directed by Sam Mendes
Universal Pictures, 119 minutes, R (war violence)

The Friday before the Oscars I confessed I hadn’t seen most of the films up for Best Picture, but it would be okay by me if Parasite won. Irony is often a harsh mistress. Less than 24 hours later, I saw 1917. Parasite is a superb movie, but 1917 is a masterpiece, and I’m talking masterpiece in the sense of being the first English-speaking movie of the 21st century that warrants that label.

Director Sam Mendes’ take on World War One builds upon Peter Jackson’s 2018 restoration They Shall Not Grow Old to give us a look inside the trenches that feels and looks right. I’m sure there are some military uniform and hardware cranks out there who will tell us that Mendes got some minor details wrong, but 1917 is intended to be more metaphorical than historical. It has been many a moon since I have seen on the screen such a powerful depiction of the utter senselessness of war.

On the surface, 1917 is one of the simplest plots imaginable: a race-to-beat-the-clock movie. In April of 1917, aerial reconnaissance revealed that a German withdrawal from their position was a faux retreat, a strategic pullback designed to lure British troops into a deadly trap. This left just 24 hours to get a message to the new front to call off an assault on what is assumed to be a lightly defended German position. More than 1,600 lives depend on a stand-down message getting to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) before the lads go “over the top.” In World War One, that meant summiting their trenches to charge across “no-man’s land” toward the enemy. When barbed wire, mines, machine guns, and heavy artillery were in play, “butchery” would be a more accurate term than “warfare.”

Two men are charged with delivering the message, Lance Corporal Will Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), the latter of whom is especially motivated as his brother Joseph (Richard Madden) is a member of a unit in extreme harm’s way. If this sounds like a thriller, be assured it’s nothing that simple. There is neither glory nor honor in a surreal quest that begins by leaving a safe position and finding a path through a no-man’s land filled with blood-drawing wire, burnt out tanks, decaying horses, deep mortar holes, and maggot-ridden corpses. All of that just to jump into rat-filled German trenches presumed to be enemy-free. Survive that, reconnoiter every tree and farm house one encounters, cross a broken-bridged canal whose opposing bank has buildings in which the enemy can hide, make one’s way through a sniper-infested burning town, endure untold other obstacles, and hope to arrive before soldiers rush into the teeth of certain death.

Mendes’ direction is flawless, Lee Smith’s editing is nothing short of brilliant, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography a dazzling array of contrasts between human-made ugliness, natural beauty, darkness, shadowy light, and the utter mundanity of death. Novelist Tim O’Brien wrote in The Things They Carried, “It can be argued … that war is grotesque. But in truth war is also beauty…. Like a killer forest fire, like cancer under a microscope….” If that line baffles, watch the journey through the burning carnage of the northern French village of Écoust-Saint-Mein and you will understand. I also cannot imagine a more perfect ending for the film than the feather with which Mendes knocks us senseless.

Chapman and MacKay are not household names, but Mendes choose them wisely. In keeping with contrasting imagery, he plays the baby-faced Chapman off against the blank-faced MacKay to convey wordlessly themes of innocence and hopefulness versus wrung-out jadedness and amoral resignation. (I would not care to be in a poker match with MacKay!) By avoiding cinematic idols, we see the character within the character rather than fixating on celebrities in uniform. It is all the more effective in reminding us that the tools of war are usually ordinary people thrown into extraordinary circumstances. When World War One ended, much of the Western world wrestled with cynicism. What, it was asked, was the point of all the bloodshed and destruction? An old Edwin Starr song answered the question of “War, what is it good for?” Response: “Absolutely nothing.”

Oscar got it wrong once again. I’m sure that Mendes and his crew can take solace in having won most of the other big awards–from American Film Institute honors, critics and producers awards, and the Golden Globes. We the viewers ought to ask hard questions about why the “war to end all wars” was but a prelude to a sanguinary future.

Rob Weir


Lynne Hanson: February 2020 Artist of the Month

Lynne Hanson
Just Words

Jan Hall of Folk Roots Radio dubbed Ottawa-based Lynne Hanson, “Canada’s own queen of Americana.” Wish I had said that! Hanson is my favorite kind of female vocalist: one with a low voice who sings effortlessly and has no need for affected coolness. Just Words, her 7th studio recording, makes it easy to understand why Hanson has won two Canadian Folk Music awards, two Acoustic Project alt-country awards, and raves from all who have heard her.

Ironically, she’s not really a folk or a country artist. You’ll hear those influences in her music, but you’ll also hear splashes of rock and big waves of the blues. Her voice will put you in mind of a blend of artists such as Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lucinda Williams, and Mary Gauthier. Think Carpenter’s silky controlled contralto, Williams’ toughness, and Gauthier’s sense of detached resignation. Fittingly, “True Blue Moon,” the album’s single release, tells of a romantic dalliance with a poet that the narrator knows cannot last: Forever is for diamonds/And for poets like you/Happy ever lasts as long/As a rainbow in June/I’ve tried to pretend/This story won’t end/But they always do…. If that’s not resignation enough for you, “Lollipops and Roses” implores: When I die won’t you bury me/With lollipops and roses next to me/Cause I’ve been riding this bitter train so long/I’m in need of something sweet….

Hanson knows that good art and pain are a better fit than most of us are comfortable in contemplating. Her “Long Way Home” reflects upon heartbreak’s detritus–loneliness, booze, losing track of time–but is also a veiled commentary on her own 8-year struggle to stay sober. You have to have been kicked around a few times to muse on such things. For-real living is one of many things that makes Just Words a mature album whose highs and lows ring true. “HigherGround” is swampy and bluesy song with a bit of backwoods gospel peeking through the leaves: I’ve been a lover/I’ve been a leaver/I lacked faith/Been a true believer/What I learned/You wanna get to heaven/Gotta take the higher ground. “Every Minute In Between” is a reminder that the lower ground is usually the path for a broken heart. The title track is equally unvarnished–a look at how hard it is for girls to get past paternal and social expectations.

Hanson shines both as a solo artist and as a band animal, and who could not love the name of her frequent ensemble: The Good Intentions?  As a singer, Hanson is the real deal. Watch her carefully in this video for “Clean Slate.” It is, first of all, a memorable mishmash melody of folk, pop, and Americana that exemplifies why it’s hard to categorize her music. More significantly, observe how she moves from verse to chorus. The transition is so seamlessly smooth that it takes a moment to notice the increased power of the latter.  

Call Just Words an album that hurts so good. Use those last two words to describe Lynne Hanson. 

Rob Weir