Bailey’s Prize nominee “The Portable Veblen” by Elizabeth McKenzie is a rip-roaring whimsical treat, a feat given its subjects of mental illness, big pharma fraud, and dysfunctional families.
McKenzie’s heroine Veblen is deeply charming and refreshingly odd. Raised by a hypochondriacal, manipulative, and domineering mother, with annual visits to her distant and judgmental father, Veblen lives in a ramshackle cottage in Palo Alto and works as a temp secretary at a university hospital. Despite her upbringing, Veblen is a gentle, open, trusting soul.
“She was amazingly good at dissociating, alleged to be unhealthy, but which she found vital to her survival over the years.”
She is eternally patient and nurturing to her mother, whose demands are frequent and, dare I say, unfair. At times, Veblen shows that she possesses insight and is “onto” her mother.
“There followed a silence, for her mother tended to freeze up and ignore compliments and love, and court instead all the miffs and tiffs she could gather round, in a perpetual powwow of pity.”
But then there are times when Veblen’s drive to see the best in people and to smooth conflict seems to blur her vision. As her best friend says, she is “dangerously optimistic”. She finds herself engaged to Paul, a young neurologist whose ambition and drive to distance himself from his hippie upbringing cloud his judgement and take him down treacherous career paths. While Veblen is a surprisingly enlightened choice for Paul, Paul was, for me, an uncomfortable choice for her.
Veblen’s gentleness and child-like wonder extend to a life-long fascination with, and magical thinking about, animals – particularly squirrels. In contrast, Paul’s feelings about animals is clinical to the point of being diabolical; animals are commodities to be treated no differently than inanimate objects. When he first meets Veblen, “he looked every bit a mad scientist absorbed in his master plan” as he gleefully saws into the skull of a lab animal. Of the squirrel living in her attic (that is not a euphemism), to whom Veblen has developed a fantastical attachment, Paul declares: “This squirrel isn’t a character in a storybook. Real animals don’t wear shawls and top hats and write poetry. They rape each other and eat their own young.” McKenzie gradually shows us that Paul’s views on animals are a surprisingly accurate description of the humans with whom he aspires to associate.
As Paul’s career rapidly blossoms towards commercial success, Veblen sits idly by, noting Paul’s “conspicuous consumption” – a concept made famous by her namesake – with alarm and inaction. Here again McKenzie’s humor paints a moment of foreboding with comical brightness: “Veblen thought that the status car diminished him somehow, as if constipation and gout and general decay of the flesh requiring extra comforts were just around the corner.”
Veblen is determined to ignore her misgivings and to forge forward with her commitment to Paul.
“She shuddered and coughed. She had said the dreaded “Love you” instead of “I love you,” and feared it marked a terrible turning point. To drop the pronoun was surely more than a time saver. She had a hunch that when couples stopped saying “I love you” and said the more neutered, quippy “Love you” instead, something had gone awry, leading to a quick succession of deterioration scenarios and other horrors of intimacy that need not be part of every union – she would not let them be.”
McKenzie does such deft work building these two as foils that, frankly, I am loathe to see them paired. Chemistry is nurtured between Veblen and reader, rather than between Veblen and her fiancé, leaving the reader torn and uneasy. I felt I was supposed to root for their union but couldn’t quite. This discomfort is my only criticism of McKenzie’s novel, and I am not entirely sure it wasn’t intentional. Elizabeth McKenzie seems well in command of her story and demonstrates a remarkable gift for whimsy, levity, and satire. This book was truly a delight.