Thorstein Veblen was a Norwegian-American writer and economist famous for decrying conspicuous consumption, getting run out of teaching jobs at Stanford and the University of Chicago in the early 1900s, and cataloging the psychological trauma of capitalism. All of which makes him a rather strange namesake for a marriage comedy, but it’s cool, because there are also a bunch of talking squirrels in it.
Elizabeth McKenzie’s second novel, The Portable Veblen, concerns the engagement of Veblen Amundsen-Hovda, who’s trying to survive a game of emotional chicken as she and her fiancé figure out if they really work together, or if they’re just deluding themselves into false happiness. The squirrels do their best to help her out. The battleground is a present-day Northern California warping and swelling under the weight of its own New Money boom; her fiancé, Paul, has partnered with a Lockheed Martin-esque company to research and develop a device to relieve traumatic brain injuries on the battlefield. As he gets in deeper with some very powerful, very shady people, Paul and Veblen realize that they don’t really know anything about each other. Love is a traumatic brain injury, as McKenzie insinuates, and you can’t every really be prepared for it.
These two are especially poorly prepared, though. As Veblen puts it, “It makes sense for the tips of icebergs to fall in love, without knowing anything about the bottom parts.” She’s a question mark of a person, “a freelance self” unsettled by her tyrant of a mother and her uninterrupted communion with the natural world. Musing about her ideal time in history, she settles on the wonderfully imprecise “a time when a shoebox mattered.” When Paul proposes to her at the very start of the book, her attention wanders: “Oh, Paul. Look, a squirrel’s watching.”
He doesn’t give a shit, and he insists that the town is “infested” with these animals, rather than “rich” with them. So there’s your emotional gulf; throughout, the squirrels are godlike figures who pull strings and tweak the plot, real characters with names and problems of their own. One even takes a road trip with Veblen as part of a very crucial plot line. But Paul’s antipathy toward them is your first clue that this ain’t no kind of fairy tale.
Paul is pathologically motivated by achievement, with visions of Nobel Prizes and body parts named after him dancing through his head. He sounds like a sinister little business child, insisting to himself that, “He’d never wear anything ethnic as long as he lived, he’d shop strictly at Brooks Brothers, down to the shorts. He’d invest in stocks and bonds!” He’s not motivated to sell his brain-trauma-easing device for humanitarian or even financial reasons: He just wants to win. When the squirrels move into his attic, he triggers the world’s lamest Bugs Bunny cartoon by setting mace-infused sauerkraut traps for them.
McKenzie writes in little poetic bursts that makes the book truly sing. “Life could be spent like an apology.” “Marriage is a continuing exercise in disappearances.” “She was a Christmas tree that had been decorated by someone who hated Christmas.” If short-story-length chapters about disastrous dinners aren’t your thing, at least you’ll enjoy the jokes, including maybe the funniest sex scene I’ve ever read, which involves an extended metaphor about Tillamook cheese and a grater. Don’t worry, no one is (physically) harmed.
Veblen’s fascination with anthropomorphized rodents and the series of loopy images that frequently punctuate the novel (the one below is my favorite) make this whole book sound like a Wes Andersonian flight of harmless whimsy. I mean, just look at these li’l guys.
But while The Portable Veblen does deal, in a familiar and not un-whimsical way, with the way the anxieties of your parents can squeeze you into odd shape, these parental anxieties are sharper and darker than your usual. Veblen’s mother, Melanie, has defined her code of living “by clearly emphasizing all that was lacking in others, by mapping and raising to an art form the catalog of their flaws.” Her combination of intelligence and acute fragility turns every interaction with her daughter into a fraught navigation through a minefield of triggers. She married too young (Veblen’s father has been in a mental institution in Paso Robles for most of her adult life), and projects her shame onto her daughter’s own impending union, insisting that Paul is a jamoke who isn’t good enough for her.
Meanwhile, Paul’s obsession with achievement arose out of opposition to his early life living on a weed farm in Humboldt County with his laissez-faire parents and a mentally disabled brother. Paul never forgave his brother for getting more attention than him; working in the war industry was as far out of his way as he could go to reject his hippy upbringing, but he still struggles to completely inhabit his new, fabricated self. Both sides of this happy new engagement project what they’re missing onto each other; as they meet each other’s families, a sense of unease grows, though McKenzie plays it as a light farce. (So many exclamation points!) This keeps those comedy-of-errors passages moving, but when the book shifts suddenly into a veteran describing the horrors of war or a wide-eyed description of Thorstein Veblen’s doomed idealism, the contrast is unnerving, and that much more effective.
The bottom eventually falls out thanks to a butt-dial (think Kanye West’s “Blame Game,” but with a squirrel), and the couple are forced to come to terms with their flaws and rough edges. The boom-era Silicon Valley setting accentuates this struggle; accordingly, The Portable Veblen reads like Joan Didion at times. But the book never dips too much into the real sense of despair that tinged Didion’s work. The business/horror of war and the perils of adapting to hostile capitalism are both major themes, yes, but this book is, at heart, a comedy. I don’t think I’m spoiling too much by revealing that it ends in a marriage. “Are you committed to having a really strange life?” Paul asks Veblen at one point, as if that was really a question.
Adequate Man is Deadspin’s self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.