The Portable Veblen
By Elizabeth McKenzie
Elizabeth McKenzie employs a whimsical tone in telling the tale of her characters, Dr. Paul Vreeland and his fiancé Veblen Amundsen-Hovda, and their respective eccentric families, as the couple navigate through a society at odds with itself and toward joining together in a harmonious relationship. Paul, a neuroscientist and inventor of a device for rapidly treating battlefield head injuries, a wannabe conspicuous consumer, and advocate of ethical behavior, and Veblen, a young woman relishing limited consumption, reveling in nature, conversant with a squirrel, a self-therapeutical typist, a nascent Norwegian translator, and devotee of Thorstein Veblen, exemplify this bifurcated society.
Veblen lives in small cottage, one of the last, in Palo Alto, that she has lovingly converted from a derelict into a cosy home for herself. She has fallen for Paul, who has moved in with her. Immediately, he becomes obsessed with capturing a pesky rodent prowling in the attic of the cosy abode, while Veblen contemplates their coming marriage and suitability for each other.
Paul, who could have had a comfortable berth at a major university, is in pursuit of the American dream consisting of personal wealth, recognition and its accompanying fame. His hopes rest on a unique, useful, and lifesaving device, called the Pneumatic Turbo Skull Punch, a device most anybody can use on a battlefield to immediately relieve pressure on the brain due to head injury. It catches the eye of the Department of Defense and the large pharma company Hutmacher, spearheaded by the hard driving Clovis Hutmacher, daughter of the founder. They set him up at a VA hospital in Menlo Park, where everything goes awry, Clovis takes advantage of him, veterans and their families are served up false hope, and author McKenzie gets to whack away at society as a giant marketing scheme. The system that Paul’s father has warned him about torments him and puts his ethical values to a severe test.
As all this transpires, Veblen has to come to terms with her love of Paul, the entire concept of marriage, which she views at times through a lens ground to the antipodal views of Adolf Guggenhbuhl-Craig in his book Marriage: Dead or Alive (think a Strindberg play, like The Father), as well as her desire for a simple life lived close to the earth, more in keeping with her idol, of whom she keeps a portrait in her cottage, Thorstein Veblen. Naturally, these conflicts plague her with anxiety that she often works out, as she has in the past, with constant typing on an old portable, as well as with exchanges with the squirrel in the attic, the very one Paul’s intent upon disposing of. Oddly, none of this is nearly as weird as it sounds.
As if the above isn’t sufficient for many insightful and comic moments, Paul and Veblen, since they are planning a wedding, bring their respective families into the mix. On Paul’s side, while his parents seem nearly normal, his brother Justin suffers from mental issues, the cause of which readers learn later in the book, that have made him the focus of the family’s attention, burdening Paul with strong feelings of resentment. Veblen’s family proves stranger by far. Her mother Melanie is a hypochondriac of the highest order, with more disorders, deficiencies, and illnesses than comfortably contained in a physician’s handbook. Topping this, she finds fault with everybody and every situation. Fortunately for her, her second husband knows how and loves to assuage her every mood, while also usually steering her in the right direction with patient prodding. Then there is her biological father living in a home for those unable to care for themselves, who proves to be not what one would expect when his true nature reveals itself, but whose condition tortures Veblen as she often wonders if she might be a bit crazy.
You’ll find The Portable Veblen a novel unlike any other you’ve read, a work in a classification all its own. While the subjects romped through are serious and sometimes saddening (like war and the VA situation), the novel is always beguiling and funny, often to the point where you might drop the book you’re laughing so hard. And lest you think all will end woefully, McKenzie brings the whole affair to a pleasing and satisfying end, tying up future events in some very unusual and creative epilogues that even those not fans of summations will smile through. And if you need an overarching theme to anchor yourself with, it would be this: what is the best way to lead your life? Highly recommended. w/c