What do you call a book with a lovable central character, pointed commentary on capitalism, acerbic opinions on marriage and an omnipresent squirrel? You call it The Portable Veblen, and then you place it high on your ‘to read’ list.
There’s a lot to love about Elizabeth McKenzie’s novel. It’s quirky and entertaining but earnest and warm. It has solid characters, humorous episodes, grizzly moments, sharp social commentary and come-uppance for those who deserve it.
The protagonist is Veblen Amundsen-Hovda, named after the American economist Thorstein Bunde Veblen. Despite such an austere namesake, she’ s one of the loveliest characters I’ve come across. Veblen worries about everything and feels responsible for everyone:
Later, cleaning the plates, she said, ‘Paul, have you ever felt sorry for the last lima bean on the plate?’
‘No’, he said.
‘The one that doesn’t get eaten, and gets scraped into the trash?’ For she really did feel sorry for it, sitting there, having grown plump, been picked and cooked, for nothing…
‘Little did it know, all that, just to end up in garbage’.
Veblen’s vast capacity for empathy is juxtaposed with her mother, Melanie C Duffy. Melanie is the amalgam of every nightmare mother-in-law, sister-in-law, aunt or friend-of-a-friend that you’ve ever met, or indeed heard of. She is selfish and narcissistic. She’s also a hypochondriac and a drama queen, which allows McKenzie to use her comedic writing ability to best effect.
Within moments of meeting her daughter’s future husband, Melanie explains her illnesses to him. She states:
Many known foods and chemicals precipitate the condition…. Peas, pork, lamb, citrus, onion, wheat, pears, the list goes on. Symptoms of mine have included imagery, hypothermia, aphasia, a feeling of rotating. Further, I’ve had facial paralysis, paralysis of the upper limbs and narcolepsy.
In wonderful ways, McKenzie illustrates the complexities of this mother-daughter relationship and how Veblen has spent her whole life soothing her mother: after a teenage sleepover her mother crumbles into hysteria when she hears that a friend’s mum has shown Veblen how to scallop a cucumber for a salad, as it ‘was a special thing that she’d wanted to teach Veblen herself’. Absurdly, Veblen apologises, reminding her mum that she that had taught Veblen how to make radishes looks like roses.
At first, I wondered whether Melanie was too reductionist, a little too parodied. But on reflection, I don’t think she is; I really do know women like this. It’s little wonder then that Veblen finds solace in talking to squirrels.
A fluffy Sciurus Griseus appeared on her bedroom sill. Its topcoat was charcoal, its chest as white as an oxford shirt, its tail as rakish as the feather in a conquistador’s cap… She sat up in bed and it seemed quite natural to speak to the animal through the windowpane.
In an interview, McKenzie said, ‘Some of the characters I have been writing about lately are attracted to animals for their empathetic warmth in the absence of language’. In additional to this, the squirrel here has many other functions – it airs Veblen’s anxieties, asking her ‘How well do you know yourself and all the choices you could make‘, makes plain other characters’ flaws and is a clever plot device, ultimately delivering redemption and healing.
None of this should distract from the fact that McKenzie has something quite profound to say about global medical companies and the military industrial complex. Neither come off well. She also has observations on marriage (‘marriage is a continuous inevitable confrontation that can be resolved only through death’) and society’s predilection to ‘conspicuous consumption’. And in amongst all of that, the book is peppered with lovely observations on modern life: ‘Every visit [to the in-laws] was a rich cube of bouillon, so full of compressed flavours, it could be enough to make soup to feed on for days’.
McKenzie has packed a lot into this book, and yet it works. It works beautifully, despite the slightly precipitous and too-tidy ending. The Portable Veblen is a superbly written, thoughtful, humorous book. And it features a squirrel. What more can a reader ask for?
And thanks to Kate whose review spurred me to read The Portable Veblen!