Review: 'The Portable Veblen' is Much More Than Talking Squirrels

"Its topcoat was charcoal, its chest as white as an oxford shirt, its tail as rakish as a feather in a conquistador's cap."

It would be all too easy to write off Veblen Amundsen-Hovda, the character at the center of Elizabeth McKenzie's The Portable Veblen, as a manic pixie dream girl. She adores typewriters. She translates obscure Norwegian texts for no pay. She wears "hand-cobbled" clothing of "indeterminate make." She lives in a charmingly run-down bungalow in Old Palo Alto. Between vigorous critiques of commodity fetishism and marketing (in the spirit of her namesake, the Norwegian-American economist Thorstein Veblen), she loves to eat at Tacos Tambien. And she gets drunk on Coronas in a hotel room with only a caged squirrel for intellectual company.

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But it's a mistake to characterize Veblen as a quirky, one-note wonder. She is a rich, well-rounded character -- an autodidact with a brilliant grasp of economic theory, as well as literature's ability to shed light on the human experience. Troubled by her past, Veblen still chafes under the influence of her mother, a despotic, narcissistic woman who lives in Cobb with her adoring husband Linus (Veblen's stepfather).

"Melanie C. Duffy, Veblen's mother, was avid at intervening, and had intervened with resolve in Veblen's life at all points, and was especially prone to anxiety about Veblen's physical and mental health and apt to intervene on a daily basis."

At the novel's beginning, Veblen is about to say yes to a marriage proposal from Paul Vreeland, a handsome but rumpled 35-year-old doctor who researches brain injuries in military veterans, and who possesses the "air of an underdog, despite his accomplishments." In spite of Veblen's misgivings about her ability to live a normal life, due to a tumultuous upbringing, she says yes -- possibly, she realizes, as a way to find a "human safe house from her mother."

"His certainty relaxed her, gave her room to reflect on her own hidden restlessness."

Like most attempts to escape the grip of unbalanced parents and childhood trauma, Veblen finds actually accomplishing this escape about as easy as climbing out a muddy, 50-foot-deep well.

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Meanwhile, Paul -- unbeknownst to Veblen, who tends to be caught in her own head -- is going through a similar familial struggle. Raised outside of Garberville with weed-growing hippie parents and a mentally disabled brother, he's spent his adult life trying to distance himself as far as possible from his parents' free-flowing, moonbeam-loving lifestyle, reinventing himself as a yuppie doctor in Patagonia jackets and J. Crew slacks. But he can never really escape.

Paul has an exaggerated sense of his own importance, which makes him an easy target for the cool grip of the Hutmatcher Pharmaceutical Empire. When we first meet Paul, he works out of a lab at Stanford where he's in the early stages of research on a Pneumatic Turbo Skull Punch, a device to be used on battlefield head trauma. Just prior to meeting Veblen, who works as a temp at the lab, Paul is "seduced" by Cloris Hutmatcher, the wealthy, cruel daughter of a pharmaceutical giant. Within days, he has signed over all rights to the Skull Punch, and agreed to move his research and clinical studies over to a veterans hospital in Menlo Park.

Elizabeth McKenzie
Elizabeth McKenzie

McKenzie, who lives in Santa Cruz, weaves in historical and cultural factoids about the Bay Area that truly make the novel zing. After moving in to her bungalow on Tasso Street, in one of the "last untouched corners of Old Palo Alto," Veblen learns about the history of the town from a neighbor.

"Palo Alto wasn't always so swank, he told her. Back then, a settlement of hobos camped around the giant sequoia by the train station, rough wooden shacks on Lytton Avenue housed kids without shoes, and rabbits were raised in hutches in the grassy fields behind them for supper. Before the university came in 1896, sheep, goats, horses, and mules grazed on ranch land. And before that, when the Spanish began to deed land grants, tule-gathering tribes swept through the tidal flats in bunched canoes, fleeing missionaries. If his parents, who'd struggled through the Depression eating rabbits and mending their socks until there were no more socks to mend, only the mending, could have seen what happened to dreamy old Palo Alto, they'd get a real kick out of it."

Veblen, in another wonderful narrative thread, finds grounding in the philsophical treatises of William James, Richard Rorty, and, of course, Thorstein Veblen, whose The Theory of the Leisure Class introduced the phrase "conspicuous consumption." (Veblen lived in a shack in Old Palo Alto at the end of his life in 1929.) These thinkers, along with the assistance of a friendly squirrel, help Veblen shore up her will to believe in the power of the underdog, the outsider, the iconoclast. And, with a father in a mental institution and a mother disliked by most everyone, it's her will to believe that'll carry her through -- if only she can get Paul to follow along.

Satirical, funny, and satisfyingly clever, The Portable Veblen weaves multiple narrative threads into a seamless whole. Get through the first pages, past the instinct to write off the story and characters as quirky, and you'll be well paid-off in the end.

Elizabeth McKenzie appears at Bookshop West Portal in San Francisco on Thursday, Feb. 18; she's also at Book Passage in Corte Madera on Friday, Feb. 19.

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