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The Portable Veblen: A Novel Hardcover – January 19, 2016
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An exuberant one-of-a-kind novel about love and family war and nature new money and old values by a brilliant New Yorker contributorThe Portable Veblen is a dazzlingly original novel thats as big-hearted as it is laugh-out-loud funny Set in and around Palo Alto amid the culture clash of new money and old antiestablishment values and with the specter of our current wars looming across its pages The Portable Veblen is an unforgettable look at the way we live now A young couple on the brink of marriagethe charming Veblen and her fianc Paul a brilliant neurologistfind their engagement in danger of collapse Along the way they weather everything from each others dysfunctional families to the attentions of a seductive pharmaceutical heiress to an intimate tte-tte with a very charismatic squirrel Veblen named after the iconoclastic economist Thorstein Veblen who coined the term conspicuous consumption is one of the most refreshing heroines in recent fiction Not quite liberated from the burdens of her hypochondriac narcissistic mother and her institutionalized father Veblen is an amateur translator and freelance self in other words shes adrift Meanwhile Paulthe product of good hippies who were bad parentsfinds his ambition soaring His medical research has led to the development of a device to help minimize battlefield brain traumaan invention that gets him swept up in a high-stakes deal with the Department of Defense a Bizarro World that McKenzie satirizes with granular specificity As Paul is swept up by the promise of fame and fortune Veblen heroically keeps the peace between all the damaged parties involved in their upcoming wedding until she finds herself falling for someoneor somethingelse Throughout Elizabeth McKenzie asks Where do our families end and we begin How do we stay true to our ideals And what is that squirrelreallythinking Replete with deadpan photos and sly appendices The Portable Veblenis at once an honest inquiry into what we l
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When Veblen and her boyfriend Paul get engaged, they each have a bit of an existential crisis. Bearing the scars from both their dysfunctional families, they come to wonder if they can deal with each other’s respective flaws. Maybe this was a mistake.
The bulk of the story focuses on Veblen, the titular character. Her father is in a mental institution. Her mother is one of the most amusingly grating, awful and passive aggressive parental figures I’ve ever come across. And Veblen herself talks to squirrels, convinced that they’re invested in the ins and outs of her life. Veblen’s secret fear is that no one will fully accept her until they accept her mother—and questions whether Paul can pass this test.
Meanwhile, what Veblen doesn’t realize is that Paul’s family has its own skeletons in the closet, and that Paul hasn’t escaped his upbringing unscathed.
The Portable Veblen is a book about relationships—both familial and romantic. Through their own unconventional journey, Veblen and Paul face quandaries and revelations that affect any couple: that being in a relationship means sharing your idiosyncrasies and accepting those of your loved one, and finding that crucial balance between retaining your individuality and becoming a harmonious unit.
I struggled rating this one. As much as I enjoy quirky, eccentric stories and characters, there were times when it felt over the top. But McKenzie’s writing is fluid, funny, and full of surprising depth. The interactions between Veblen and her mother alone make it worth the read, and as someone in a long-term relationship, I appreciated the insights on love and commitment. Lots of little treasures to be found in this one if you’re willing to endure some borderline-tweeness.
As the central character, Veblen puts it: “A wedding is the time and place to recognize the full clutch of the past in the negotiation of a shared future. Try devoting a few pages to that, Brides magazine!”
And how could you not love a book with a squirrel as a key character?
Veblen, the woman, is a temp worker who also translates Norwegian for a group determined to promote the old world culture to the diaspora who immigrated, primarily to the United States. Veblen is a quirky sort; she talks to squirrels for one thing. She likes to type, even when a typewriter isn't available. When she moved to Palo Alto she converted a run-down hovel into a nice little cottage doing all the remodeling herself. Her mother. She is plagued by her mother, Melanie, who is the epitome of hypochondria. She also has an ex-husband who suffers from PTS whom Veblen is trying to get to know.
Veblen is in love with Dr. Paul Vreeland a researcher who thinks he's invented a device that will help field medics deal with brain injuries, at least stop the swelling. But he's made the mistake of hooking up with Clovis Hutmacher, a lead executive at one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. Paul wants to do testing on cadavers and volunteers; Clovis wants to get the product into production as soon as possible.
Paul has family problems, too. His parents are former hippies; he has an older brother, Justin, who, coincidentally, also suffers from a brain injury. Paul thinks Justin has them wound around his little finger and is smarter than he looks. He uses his handicap to torture Paul.
The squirrel has taken up residence in Veblen's attic. It keeps Paul awake at night. Paul tries to catch it with a humane trap, but apparently it's too smart for him.
So . . . we have a number of conflicts going on here: family versus potential spouse, unethical pharmaceutical companies trying to take advantage of a somewhat naive inventer and an engaged couple who aren't quite sure what they're getting into or even if they really want to.
As in many modern novels everybody, including the squirrel, gets a point of view, and we bounce from Veblen to Paul to Melanie to Clovis. I think it would have been a better book if Veblen narrated the whole thing. As is it needs editing badly, but I do like it, primarily because Thorstein Veblen, who should be a modern progressive hero, is mentioned and quoted periodically, along with a brief biography.
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It was one of Jonathan Franzen's two books of the year last year, and I can see why he liked it.Read more