The Portable Veblen
By Elizabeth McKenzie
By Elizabeth McKenzie
This must be my year for quirky protagonists created by women writers. Veblen Amundsen-Hovda may well be my favorite.
She is the young heroine of Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen. She’s named for the nonconformist economist Thorstein Veblen, and lives in Palo Alto, where this creator of the term conspicuous consumption also spent time.
Our Veblen is a temp typist, who loves the act of typing, and a freelance translator of Norwegian prose. She finds a little house that is close to falling apart and turns it into a home. That little place is a haven, and why Veblen would love to create and have and hold a haven becomes clear as the story rolls along.
As this pair realizes that they have committed themselves to a life together, their former lives come into play. Oh dear. It’s time to introduce the loved one to one’s parents.
Although McKenzie has already set a light tone in her style, with side musings that show depth, she kicks this style into high gear with the families involved. Veblen’s mother is neurotic and an uber hypochondriac. She fusses over Veblen something fierce.
In the midst of the light-hearted quirkiness, we see why. Veblen is rather nervous when Paul sets a trap in her attic’s house to keep the squirrels out. No wonder she’s nervous. She thinks one of them has been communicating with her for years. Growing up in a little place named Cobb, Veblen was akin to the Bronte sisters with her own created world:
The map represented a place called Wobb, with all the topography and various special places sketched in. No, it wasn’t quite like Cobb. It was a place where animals had been gathering to reinstate their rights, and where a runaway girl lived by herself in a tree house and was somehow an important part of their world. Humans simply could no longer see the intrinsic value of anything. Squirrels, for instance, had thought that after fifty million years on the North American continent, it was safe to let down their guard. They had made a bad contract with people in innocence and trust, and had paid the price.Little noticings that make big points were a reading highlight, such as “Humans simply could no longer see the intrinsic value of anything” (as looking at the news today will tell us) and that any living creature might make “a bad contract with people in innocence and trust” because those qualities still do exist.
Or, as a character notes: “Do you think wishful thinking is a psychiatric condition?”
Veblen and her mother have had a strong relationship for years not only because they love each other, but because they have had to deal with Veblen’s father, who was institutionalized. Veblen’s stepfather is a librarian; she has grown up immersed in books, reading and living in other people’s words and creating her own:
The smell was the London of Dickens, the catacombs on the Appia Antica, the Gobi Desert in winter, a dark monastery in Tibet. It was Nevada City in the gold rush. It was a telegraph office near the Mexican border. It was a captain’s trunk coming around the Horn. It was a dressing room on the Great White Way in New York. Sometimes, it was a breezy little tree house in Wobb.Paul’s family has had its struggles as well. He grew up under the shadow of his father’s brother dying a hero in Vietnam. Paul’s medical device that the big corporation has decided to develop could help battlefield medics. Paul’s brother is developmentally disabled and concern for him controls everything that has happened to the family for years. Paul’s a bit tired of that and he most definitely does not want this overwhelming concern to ruin his wedding.
This makes the novel sound more distraught and heavy lifting than it actually is. McKenzie has a light and assured narrative style that allows the characters to learn to be honest about themselves and their loved ones without an underlying sense of despair or nihilism. Yes, bad things happen. People can be greedy and selfish. But they also can hurt and try not to let it overcome them. They can acknowledge the burdens of others and they can be forgiving. They can continue to reach out. And they can love and be loved.
Even as Veblen and Paul figure out if they are grown-up and if they want to marry, let alone marry each other, the way they view their families and each other’s is a solid part of their journey. Seeing beyond the irritations or slights can do that:
Through the rough glass she saw gestures of familiarity as they huddled over the pictures. Marion placed a hand on Paul’s shoulder. Justin leaned on Bill. Bill talked to his boys, and for that moment, listening to their father, they sat as brothers absorbed in family lore. What did she know about families, and how they ran?Another character sees this family later and knows how significant their moments of togetherness are, as we know how important family is to the observant character. It is one of those sweet moments in a novel that is the equivalent of a warm fire, comfy chair and blanket, and beverage of choice.
Occasionally we see through the eyes of other characters; these times throughout the book are not overdone, but including them adds depth. Returning to Veblen’s perspective, it’s easier to see why she has come to her conclusions.
And as for the squirrel -- an element that is not overdone and not as twee as some may think -- it’s worth the journey of reading the entire novel just to find out about its significance.
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