Carolyn Percy casts a critical eye over The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie. Available from Fourth Estate.
All great romances culminate in a wedding, that happy ending that all couples aspire to. Right? With a proposal in a bucolically fairytale forest, The Portable Veblen begins where most love stories end, though the ring, set with ‘a diamond so large it would be a pill to avoid for those who easily gag’, seems to suggest the path to happiness will not be a smooth one.
Meet Veblen Amundsen-Hovda. Cheerful office temp, part-time translator of Norwegian and full-time proponent of the anti-capitalist views of her namesake, the 19th-century anti-consumerist philosopher Thorstein Veblen. Daughter of a narcissistic hypochondriac (a comic creation worthy and reminiscent of Austen’s Mrs. Bennett, albeit far more intelligent and self-aware) and a shell-shocked Vietnam vet (and a stepfather who is, perhaps unkindly yet not wrongly, referred to as something of a ‘eunuch’), Veblen found an escape by becoming, with the aid of her mother’s portable typewriter, a kind of traveling scribe, not only of her own thoughts and the thought and stories of those around her, but of the Bronte-esque imaginary land of Wobb; a place where animals live free from their oppressive ‘contracts’ with humanity and the Nutkinistas work to overthrow and restructure the social order.
Even now, Veblen retains this child-like belief and sense of wonder, convinced that the squirrel that seems to be following her around may be trying to communicate with her. Now meet Paul Vreeland, her fiancé. A neurologist with an increasing string of letters after his name, whose experimental device to help treat brain injuries in combat has brought him to the attention of Cloris Hutmacher, heiress to a slightly shady global pharmaceutical company. Paul’s mother and father were good people, and even better hippies, but bad parents, their time and energy taken up with Paul’s severely disabled brother, Justin, forming such a close-knit unit (they refer to themselves as ‘the tripod’) from which Paul has felt forever excluded. Scarred by a childhood marked by a self-sufficient yet nonetheless squalid chaos, and with his career looking to be on the up, he wholeheartedly embraces the capitalist institutions and agendas his parents are – rightly – suspicious of.
Paul is embarrassed by and resentful of his family. Veblen despairs of ever finding someone who will accept her mother and not leave her because of it. Will Veblen and Paul learn to overcome their various anxieties regarding their families, or accept them? Because that’s what this book is really about. Aside from the commentary on the modern institution of marriage, capitalism and anti-consumerism, medical marketing and the pharmaceutical industry (particularly with its relationship with the Military) which runs neatly between absurd and blackly comic, The Portable Veblen is a book about families: how they shape you, how they screw you up, how you can’t help but love them despite it, and how, at the end of the day, they manage to come through for you.
This is a character-led novel, and every character has something with which you will, if not empathise or sympathise with, then at least understand. Paul’s resentment towards Justin, for instance, may appear to some as horribly un-empathetic and intolerant, but anyone who has for whatever reason felt like they’ve played second fiddle to a sibling will understand where he’s coming from, particularly the inherent unfairness of the situation of a sibling whose problems you know are not their fault but it still feels like they’re overindulged or given an overly easy time of things in comparison.
Even Cloris Hutmacher, a vile character with no redeeming features, has a magnetic quality that draws the reader in along with Paul, making her interesting and fun to read about.
And so, without giving too much away, The Portable Veblen, like all great love stories, does indeed end with a wedding, and it’s perfect, not in the traditional sense but perfect for these characters. A book well deserving of it place on the Bailey’s Women’s Prize longlist.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to talk to squirrels.