The Bottom Line: 'The Portable Veblen' By Elizabeth McKenzie

A nutty story about pharmaceutical testing, squirrels and the travails of getting married.
Penguin Press

You’ve heard this story before.

Boy meets girl. Boy spends inordinate amount of time at girl’s charming, time-tattered home in a rapidly gentrifying corner of Palo Alto. Boy proposes marriage to girl, who reluctantly accepts, worried about the security of her newly earned independence. Plus, girl hasn’t told boy yet about her habit of communicating with squirrels, a pastime cultivated during a whimsical if lonely childhood.

So begins the quirky modern love story at the heart of Elizabeth McKenzie’s ambitious new novel, which questions how intimate relationships can function in a society increasingly defined by individual expression rather than adherence to social norms.

The titular Veblen -- the book’s tiny, plucky protagonist brimming with adorable quirks -- is a lover of wild things, including both invasive rodents and her intrusive mother, whose wry genius almost makes up for her clinginess and severe hypochondria. A Ph.D. dropout, Veblen’s mother named her only child after the principles of Thorstein Veblen, the inscrutable economist known for coining the phrase “conspicuous consumption.” In keeping with her namesake’s principles, Veblen holds down a job with a modest salary, doing unpaid translation work as a passion project in her spare time.

It’s a wonder, then, that she falls in love with Paul, an ambitious doctor running shady clinical trials for a product he’s sold to a major pharmaceutical conglomerate. The device itself is altruistic -- in theory it should decrease the chances of soldiers who’ve experienced head trauma from developing lasting brain injuries -- but Paul’s willingness to use what he believes to be members of the peskiest animal species as test subjects is a problem for the sentimental Veblen.

Paul and Veblen’s courtship is mostly characterized by their mutual desire to focus on their similarities rather than explore their many differences. But their engagement expedites the inevitable; both accept that they have to introduce the other to their families, and thus risk calling the whole thing off. While Veblen worries about her mother’s critical nature and paranoid disposition, Paul can’t stand his parents’ laissez-faire attitude, and resents them for always putting his brother with special needs first.

The resulting domestic scenes -- interspersed with chapters devoted to the jargon-heavy world of pharmaceutical trials and the equally esoteric musings of Thorstein Veblen -- accurately and funnily capture the complexities of modern families, made knotty by the work we’re encouraged to do in our individual lives. Think The Corrections meets The Wallcreeper -- where the warring wants of career-centric success and familial harmony converge, tension and comedy emerge.

But, if you’ve read The Wallcreeper, you know crafting characters eager to assert independence can get bogged down in heavy-handed pages devoted to the intricacies of said character’s careers or principles. Less illuminating than McKenzie’s tension-fueled familial scenes are the entire chapters she sets inside to explain pharmaceutical conferences or philosophical puzzles dreamt up by William James. These tidbits alone are gleaming and gem-like, but their placement among the tumult of the characters’ relationships makes for a rocky read in parts.

Perhaps that’s the point. As she matures, Veblen learns that life is much messier than the neat theories she clings to. Some encounters are absurd and inexplicable -- and that’s okay.

The bottom line:

An erratic plot that winds around quirky characters, esoteric theories and heartfelt scenes illuminating the lovely messiness of familial relationships.

Who wrote it:

Elizabeth McKenzie is the author of MacGregor Tells the World and Stop That Girl. She’s been an editor at The Atlantic and Chicago Quarterly Review.

Who will read it:

Anyone interested in funny books, social criticism, or stories about dysfunctional families.

What other reviewers think:

Kirkus: “McKenzie’s idiosyncratic love story scampers along on a wonderfully zig-zaggy path, dashing and darting in delightfully unexpected directions as it progresses toward its satisfying end and scattering tasty literary passages like nuts along the way.”

Slate:The Portable Veblen brings together its disparate themes and worlds with confidence and dexterity, making the standard well-made novel seem as timid as -- well, as a squirrel.”

Opening lines:

"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 Amundson-Hovda."

Notable passage:

"When you entered the cavern of another language, you could leave certain people behind, for they had no interest in following you in. You could, by way of translation, emerge from the cavern and share your adventures with them. You didn’t have to be an intellectual in a black beret smoking clove cigarettes to be a translator, not at all. You could become one in your blue flannel pajamas, your face smeared with Clearsil. You did."

The Portable Veblen
by Elizabeth McKenzie
Penguin Press, $26.00
Published Jan. 19

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