by Elizabeth McKenzie
Admittedly, the first thing that drew me to “The Portable Veblen” was the squirrel on the cover.
He’s adorable, holding a speech bubble informing us that this book is “a novel”.
If you indeed CAN judge a book by it’s cover, I liked what I was about to read. I turned to the back of the book and read: "A clever morality tale set against the verdant paradise of Palo Alto, McKenzie's story of an ambitious young neurologist and the seductions of the darker side of the medical economy is both incisive and hilarious." - Abraham Verghese, New York Times bestselling author of “Cutting for Stone”.
The book kind of lost me there, because reading about the darker side of the medical economy doesn't seem like it could ever be hilarious. And it’s not. Not that part of the story at least, and that’s one of the things I really enjoyed about the book...it’s a journey into love, despair, anger, resentment, understanding, patience, sacrifice, family, and tuning in to nature, with moments that can make you want to cry, laugh, or even scream (out loud...about bureaucracy!). The Portable Veblen is quite the ride.
In addition to the title character, Veblen, and the squirrels who live in her attic, there are many characters in this novel who are fighting battles with depression, PTSD, anxiety and a whole host of medical issues. We are introduced to severely wounded veterans and their families, and feel their desperation when the possibility for recovery, no matter how slight, is offered. What McKenzie does so beautifully is to share their stories with us in the most insightful way possible. Veblen, for instance, deals with some level of depression, but her story is not one of sadness and despair. Not everyone who suffers from depression seems depressed to the outside world. Rather, as so often happens in real life, we meet a young woman who has learned to ride out the challenges with a brave face and a "let's make the best of this situation” attitude, who has learned to adapt to some of the stressors in her life, but is still on a journey to "do better". Even if she doesn’t know it, Veblen is on a path of self-discovery and acceptance that in no way (thankfully!) comes across in a preachy, self-help kind of way to the reader. And in coping with the ups and downs of life, who cares if Veblen talks with a few squirrels along the way?
Elizabeth McKenzie, in an essay written for The Center for Fiction*, recalls a conversation after one of her book readings, with a man who was inquiring about the connection between Virginia Woolf's novel, “Mrs. Dalloway” and “The Portable Veblen”:
“You see,” he continued, “I made some calculations and noted that your novel, despite the marketing emphasis on squirrels, is roughly only 8% squirrel, while it’s more than 35% military medical industrial complex through the porthole of traumatic brain injury by way of Warren Smith in the lineage of Woolf, and that just about 100% of everybody in the book is suffering from ‘brain damage' in one form or another. You have your heroine Veblen, depressed and on antidepressants; you have her father, a Vietnam vet, in a mental institution suffering from PTSD; you have the fiancé Paul Vreeland, the neuroscientist, who has invented a device to prevent TBI in war fighters but has yet to address his own psychological issues; you have Paul’s brother Justin, who has brain damage from a birth injury; you have the self-medicating parents of Paul; and ultimately you have the injured vet Warren Smith himself. What was your rationale for filling your book with various brain disturbances and the people trying to deal with them? Not having access to your diaries as I once had access to Woolf's, I couldn't help but wonder what you were trying to do and how significant your own mental health issues were in the composition of the novel.”
The essay continues: “I was willing to answer, or at least to try. I’d always been interested in mental illness and brain issues. It may have started with this Life Science book I came upon in about 6th grade called The Mind. It had chapters on the nervous system, perception, mental illness, the unconscious, phobias, and so on. It delved into the psyches of artists like Hieronymus Bosch. When I was a kid, and maybe even still, I loved reading biographies of tormented geniuses like Vincent Van Gogh or Beethoven. The more mental illness they suffered from, the more solace and companionship I found in their stories. I suspected myself of having a tendency to depression — my childhood nickname was Eeyore, after the woeful donkey, and I’d grown up surrounded by individuals who had struggled with mental, emotional and physiological issues of all kinds. To think there were people out there who had transformed their inner torment into masterpieces was inspiring to say the least.”
McKenzie’s essay* was fascinating, and it gave me clarity into why the author created the characters she did, and how she was so beautifully able to make them so real. So relatable. So multi-faceted and human as opposed to the caricatures we are often exposed to.
From the inside of the book jacket:
“A dazzingly original novel about love and family, war and nature, set amid a California culture clash of new money and antiestablishment values.
Veblen and Paul are just trying to make it to their wedding day in one piece. The irrepressible Veblen is a beacon of good cheer who translates documents from Norwegian, navigates her hypochondrical mom and institutionalized father, and feels protective of the squirrel nesting in the attic. She’s also an amateur scholar of her namesake, Thorstein Veblen, the restless, brilliant economist who coined the term “conspicuous consumption.” (Why DID her mother name her that?)
Paul, the product of good hippies who were bad parents, invents the Pneumatic Turbo Skull Punch, a device meant to treat battlefield head trauma. When the Department of Defense gets involved, Paul’s visions of fame and fortune collide with his ethics. As the couple grapples with dysfunctional parents, a seductive pharamaceutical heiress and a very charismatic squirrel, Elizabeth McKenzie asks: Where do our families end and we begin? How do we stay true to our ideals? And what is that animal REALLY thinking? The Portable Veblen is a bighearted inquiry into contemporary American life, and what we look for in love.”
One of the things I enjoyed most about The Portable Veblen, was the fact that, as it goes in life, you never know where on earth this book is going to go. There was no expected formula for the plot, no nodding off while reading or skimming quickly through pages because you’re pretty sure you know what’s going to happen next. In a 2016 interview in the Chicago Weekly Reader, interviewer Aimee Levitt wrote: “Until she finished writing, McKenzie wasn’t sure how the novel would end. “I would write myself into corners,” she said. “Anything could happen.” That sense of surprise makes The Portable Veblen feel like an adventure in the best possible way.
From the first page, through the sometimes humorous and sometimes tragic chapters, and all the way through the collection of hilarious appendices at the end, I found The Portable Veblen one of the most satisfying reads I’ve experienced in quite awhile.