Review: ‘The Portable Veblen’ is deep, wise and eccentric ... and full of squirrels
Squirrels, a reluctant bride, a dead economist and the military-industrial complex: These elements may seem unlikely to add up to a refreshing, life-affirming and funny novel that’s climbing the bestseller lists, but they can all be found in Elizabeth McKenzie’s “The Portable Veblen.”
Like many readers, I bought the novel on a whim, attracted by the clean, crisp cover design and, in particular, the handsome squirrel saying “A Novel.” I kept reading not just for the squirrel lore but also because McKenzie has crafted a story that beneath an entertaining, clever surface, is deep and wise and complicated.
Yet the setup is simple: In Palo Alto, thirtysomething Paul Vreeland proposes to his girlfriend, Veblen Amundsen-Houda. Veblen’s “yes” is the catalyst for events that involve, in equal measure, squirrels, Veblen’s sense that something is not quite right in her relationship, and the competing eccentricities of both families. When Veblen brings Paul to meet her mother and stepfather, the epic debacle — hilarious yet also wince-inducing — both exacerbates the couple’s problems and makes them harder to confront.
Paul’s family is an issue too, because he’s tried to run away from its hippie-dippy eco-earnestness by becoming a doctor who specializes in the neurological. He runs a little too far when he becomes deeply embedded in the military world while trying to perfect the Pneumatic Turbo Skull Punch, a tool that alleviates brain trauma from battlefield injuries.
Veblen, meanwhile, lives in a bungalow she’s turned into a little paradise of urban wilderness — a sanctuary from her difficult, hypochondria-ridden mother. She works mostly as a translator, an “independent behaviorist, experienced cheerer-upper, and freelance self, who was having a delayed love affair with the world due to an isolated childhood.” She lives easily with nature and not only abides squirrels in the attic but also aids and abets them. (Paul: “This town is infested with squirrels, have you noticed?” Veblen: “I’d rather say it’s rich with squirrels.”)
McKenzie has created a marvel in Veblen, whose worldview is in part shaped by her namesake, Thorstein Veblen, a real-life economist and sociologist who coined the term “conspicuous consumption.” Veblen has strong opinions on just about everything: commemorative signs devoted to Thorstein (“What nitwit wrote this?”), Beatrix Potter’s depiction of squirrels (“was Nutkin as frivolous as he was made out to be?”). But that’s not to suggest Veblen is some twee creation. There’s often a deceptively hard edge to her musings: “She reflected that leveraging herself had become a major pastime. Was it a fear of the domino, snowball, or butterfly effect? Or maybe just a vague awareness of behavioral cusps, cascading failures, chain reactions, and quantum chaos?”
Veblen’s also kind, thoughtful and sees a wider world than Paul. When Paul rejects one of her favorite wilderness spots as a place for the wedding, he doesn’t realize that landscape is so integral to her sense of being that he has in a sense rejected her. She embodies the idea that a true democratic nature must encompass human and animal, organic and inorganic, as put forward by John Durham Peters in his treatise “The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media.”
It may seem like I’m making mighty sophisticated claims for a novel steeped in squirrel lore, but even the squirrel lore is astute and canny. In pushing back against Paul’s squirrel-trap plan for her attic, Veblen tells him, “[Economist Veblen] would say people hate squirrels … because that’s the only way to motivate expenditures on them — such as buying traps or guns. It’s the same with stirring up patriotic emotionalism, because it justifies expenditures for defense.” That analysis speaks not just to the current political rhetoric but also to other widespread problems, like the justification (and junk science) behind policies about coyotes in the West.
McKenzie shows a love for the natural world, but she also exhibits considerable skill in evoking Paul’s research and navigating the weaponized commerce that is the world of military contractors. Having been in meetings with similar contractors in a former life, I can attest to the realism of even the broadest and most bombastic personality types Paul encounters as they try to sell him on undermining his own ideas.
Still, the stars of “The Portable Veblen” and the reason the novel is garnering such good word-of-mouth are Veblen and the squirrels. So when a conflicted Veblen goes AWOL with an actual squirrel, trying to get space and distance to think, it results not in narrative drift but in some of the funniest and most astute moments in the novel. (Especially her conversations with the squirrel.)
In other scenes, as Veblen and Paul’s crisis deepens, McKenzie’s observations reminded me of the best of Clarice Lispector or Angela Carter on gender relations: “Her usual engagement [was] replete with queries and analysis and a kind of domestication of the topic so that it became like a furry pet with a life of its own, all of which he had come to depend on. The way a cat depends on your petting it when it purrs. The purring forces you to keep petting. Even after you’re tired. Even after you want to move on.”
Veblen doesn’t need “fixing” by her family or by Paul, and much of the novel’s tension comes from worrying about what Veblen will decide to do. She may seem eccentric, but that’s only because the world we take for granted has considerable flaws.
“Now it was a brighter day,” McKenzie writes toward the novel’s end, from a squirrel’s perspective. “Not a gust or a cloud…. Jays and warblers spoke over one another, but not loud enough. Wasps built on the lengthening days, too busy to sting. Even the wildflowers were whispering. Or was that just the sound of his life-fuse burning down?”
With so light a touch and yet more serious and beautiful and relevant than many a weightier novel, “The Portable Veblen” has the feel of an instant, unlikely classic.
VanderMeer is the author of the Southern Reach Trilogy from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
The Portable Veblen
Penguin Press: 448 pp., $26
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