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.
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.