The Portable Veblen: A Novel

Image of The Portable Veblen: A Novel
Release Date: 
January 19, 2016
Penguin Press
Reviewed by: 

“Elizabeth McKenzie, it would seem, has a firm grasp of the obscure. She also has a killer gift for fiction.”

The Portable Veblen is a gorgeous thing.

A new novel by Elizabeth McKenzie, The Portable Veblen seems at times to contain all the detritus caught in the lint filter of its author’s mind: medical devices lacking proper testing, backstories of life in a hippie commune, institutionalized estranged fathers, greedy millionaires, squirrels that spell out “muumuu” as a form of warning, and the ghost of real-life author and economist Thorstein Velbun, whose book The Theory of the Leisure Class, published in 1899, gave us the term “conspicuous consumption” and warned us of the one percent back before anyone else was keeping track of the percentages. But in spite of all these things and so many more that in lesser hands would have resulted in treacle, McKenzie’s novel and its central character Veblen Amundsen-Hovda, who is wonderfully described early on as being “in the slim green spring of her life,” instead seem, in turns, witty, woeful, and wise.

True, she had me at Thorstein.

And at the ongoing references to the man (his namesake keeps his portrait hung on the wall in her cottage, in a place that “she came when she needed to find her best self, to remind herself there were many ways to achieve one’s ideals, not just the conventional ones.”), his works and contributions to American society, his oddball lifestyle (in rejecting traditional American values of his day, he lived in a converted chicken coop), even to the road marker in Valders Memorial Park in Manitowoc County in Wisconsin, from which McKenzie quotes in part:

“On of Wisconsin’s most controversial figures, Thorstein Bunde Veblen, was born near here July 30, 1857. He was not a popular teacher but attracted dedicated followers.”

It goes on from there, discussing Thorstein Veblen’s shy nature and his sense of deep loneliness, and McKenzie leaves out the upbeat part of the plaque’s verbiage, the fact that Thorstein Veblen managed to graduate from Yale, etc., but what of it?

The blend of fiction and historical fact—not only the myriad tributes to T. Veblen, but also several mentions of Adolf Guggenbuhl-Craig’s Jungian tome, Marriage: Dead or Alive (the title gives a strong indication as to the book’s central message questioning the need for marriage in the modern world), as well as several other echoes of reality flung into the narrative mix—only add to this very unusual book’s unusual nature.

At the heart of it, The Portable Veblen (a reference not only to the nature of the novel’s central character, but also to a collection of Thorstein V’s lesser writings that receive as little as three-starred ratings on Amazon), is a very simple little love story. One that pairs young Veblen Amudnsen-Hovda with a man, whose hand she holds as they walk down Tasso Street in Palo Alto, California.

Of her, we are told:

“She was plain and mild in appearance, with hair the color of redwood bark, and eyes speckled like September leaves.”

And he is described as being:

“A thirty-four-year-old man named Paul Vreeland, tall and solid of build, branded head to toe in forge-gray Patagonia jacket, indigo cords from J. Crew, and brown leather Vans that were showing flecks of mud.”

The set up is this:

“It was a rainy day in winter, shortly after the New Year. At the end of the street a squirrel raked leaves on the banks of the San Francisquito Creek, looking for pale, aged oak nuts, from which the tannins had been leeched by rain and dew. In muddy rain boots, a boy and a girl ran in circles, collecting acorns, throwing them, screaming with delight in the rain. Children did this every day, Veblen knew, scream in delight.

“The skin of the old year was cracking, coming apart, the sewers sweeping it away beneath the roads. Soon would come a change in the light, the brief, benign winter of northern California tilting to warmth and flowers. All signs that were usually cause for relief, yet Veblen felt troubled, as if rushing toward disaster. But was it of a personal nature, or worldwide? She wanted to stop time.”

What sets The Portable Veblen apart from so much else that finds its way typeset onto vellum and glued between two cardboard covers these days is the language, the rich yet crisp descriptions (that redwood hair, those September eyes) and the world created upon these pages. And the sudden collision between fact and fiction, as here, when Erwin Perzy suddenly appears:

“He drank some water through a straw, then said, ‘In Vienna in the late 1800s, there was this medical-device-maker guy, Erwin Perzy, and he tried to invent a surgical lamp that would be brighter than the bulbs they were using at the time. He knew that setting a candle behind a glass of water enhanced the light, so he started playing around with encasing bulbs in globes of water, then adding tinsel and white sand for reflection. It didn’t work for lamps, but you know those things called snow globes?’


“’That’s what he ended up inventing. To this day, that’s what he’s known for.’”

Elizabeth McKenzie, it would seem, has a firm grasp of the obscure. She also has a killer gift for fiction. That she has managed somehow to blend those things into sentences crocheted like fine Irish lace only makes things all the nicer.

It is a book that ought not to work, that, given Veblen herself, a character that seems hell-bent for qualifiers like “kooky” and “quirky,” and given the number of squirrels that gambol throughout the pages thereof, ought to be all but unreadable. And yet instead, The Portable Veblen is a lovely book, a tender book, and a book full of fun, almost the sort of thing that Anne Tyler might come up with, if she were in a less wistful mood than usual.

With The Portable Veblen, Elizabeth McKenzie shows herself to be a writer who hides aces up her sleeve. And one who, smirking, lays them all out at once for all the world to see.