Summary and book reviews of The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

The Portable Veblen

A Novel

by Elizabeth McKenzie

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2016, 448 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2016, 448 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster

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About this Book

Book Summary

An exuberant, one-of-a-kind novel about love and family, war and nature, new money and old values by a brilliant New Yorker contributor

The Portable Veblen is a dazzlingly original novel that's as big-hearted as it is laugh-out-loud funny. Set in and around Palo Alto, amid the culture clash of new money and old (antiestablishment) values, and with the specter of our current wars looming across its pages, The Portable Veblen is an unforgettable look at the way we live now. A young couple on the brink of marriage—the charming Veblen and her fiancé Paul, a brilliant neurologist—find their engagement in danger of collapse. Along the way they weather everything from each other's dysfunctional families, to the attentions of a seductive pharmaceutical heiress, to an intimate tête-à-tête with a very charismatic squirrel.

Veblen (named after the iconoclastic economist Thorstein Veblen, who coined the term "conspicuous consumption") is one of the most refreshing heroines in recent fiction. Not quite liberated from the burdens of her hypochondriac, narcissistic mother and her institutionalized father, Veblen is an amateur translator and "freelance self"; in other words, she's adrift. Meanwhile, Paul—the product of good hippies who were bad parents—finds his ambition soaring. His medical research has led to the development of a device to help minimize battlefield brain trauma—an invention that gets him swept up in a high-stakes deal with the Department of Defense, a Bizarro World that McKenzie satirizes with granular specificity.

As Paul is swept up by the promise of fame and fortune, Veblen heroically keeps the peace between all the damaged parties involved in their upcoming wedding, until she finds herself falling for someone—or something—else. Throughout, Elizabeth McKenzie asks: Where do our families end and we begin? How do we stay true to our ideals? And what is that squirrel really thinking? Replete with deadpan photos and sly appendices, The Portable Veblen is at once an honest inquiry into what we look for in love and an electrifying reading experience.

Chapter 2: Sauerkraut and Mace

As it turned out, Paul had gone shopping for more than breakfast.

She watched from the window as he wrestled something from the trunk of his car. Under a clearing sky, a newly minted object threw its shadow onto the walkway, coffin-shaped, about two feet long.

"Oh my god, a trap?" she said, at the door.

"It's my stated goal to keep pests out of our lives," he announced, and she thought nervously of her mother.

"What if we don't agree on what's a pest?"

"Veb, I got no sleep last night. You should be glad I didn't get the guillotine kind." The packaging boldly proclaimed:

Humanely TRAPS, not KILLS:
Squirrels
Chipmunks
Shrews
Voles
and other Nuisance Critters!

"I hate the word critters!" Veblen said, displacing her negative feelings onto an innocent noun.

He persisted, pointing to the fine print. "Look at this."

Squirrels can cause extensive damage to attic insulation or walls and gnaw on electrical wires in homes and vehicles, ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Author McKenzie successfully invokes the economist Thorstein Veblen when making her critique of consumerism and in her vision of her protagonist's spiritual connection with nature. However, parts of the novel can be over-the-top. For example, squirrels keep turning up in ways that affect the plot, allowing for some very funny set-pieces. I simultaneously found the novel to be a convincing and serious account of the difficulty of blending different families and ideologies – which is what a marriage is all about. With Veblen we also get an affecting picture of the aimlessness many twenty- and thirty-somethings experience if they haven't found their way into a traditional career.   (Reviewed by Rebecca Foster).

Full Review (700 words).

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Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Starring. McKenzie writes with sure-handed perception, and her skillful characterization means that despite all of Veblen’s quirks—she’s an amateur Norwegian translator with an affinity for squirrels—she’s one of the best characters of the year. McKenzie’s funny, lively, addictive novel is sure to be a standout.

Kirkus

Will these kind, if somewhat confused, young people find their ways out of the past and to each other and a happy shared future? The reader can't help rooting them on. McKenzie's idiosyncratic love story scampers along on a wonderfully zig-zaggy path, dashing and darting in delightfully unexpected directions as it progresses toward its satisfying end and scattering tasty literary passages like nuts along the way.

Author Blurb Abraham Verghese, New York Times bestselling author of Cutting for Stone
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.

Author Blurb Karen Joy Fowler, PEN Faulkner winner for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Man oh man, do I love this book! I have never read anything like it. I can't believe how funny it is given that we're dealing at times with pharmaceutical fraud, irreparable brain injury, and comatose veterans. (Family dysfunction, on the other hand, is always funny)… Audacious, imaginative, and totally wonderful: The whole books zips and zings.

Author Blurb Christian Kiefer, author of The Animals and The Infinite Tides
Only Elizabeth McKenzie could make a novel—a great novel—with such weird and wonderful ingredients. The Portable Veblen gives us squirrels, love, family dysfunction, sex, marriage, medical science, and something called the Pneumatic Turbo Skull Punch, all swirled into a funny, beautiful, heartbreaking story. The Portable Veblen is about all of these things but mostly it’s about that most important of subjects: what it is to be human.

Reader Reviews

Jo @ Booklover Book Reviews

Beautifully farcical
My inherent radar for the combination of literary, quirky and witty drew me to Elizabeth McKenzie’s novel The Portable Veblen. Firstly, McKenzie’s prose is a delight to read, at times whimsical, but always with a strong emotional connection. &...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Thorstein Bunde Veblen

The economist Thorstein Bunde Veblen, a frequent point of reference (and the main character's namesake) in Elizabeth McKenzie's The Portable Veblen, was born in Wisconsin in 1857. Veblen is famous for the concept of "conspicuous consumption," or spending more on things than they are worth to make a show of one's class.

He was the fourth of twelve children born to Norwegian parents who emigrated to America in the 1840s. Their family farm, which patriarch Thomas Veblen built himself, is now a National Historic Landmark in Nerstrand, Minnesota.

Thorstein Bunde Veblen Although Norwegian was Veblen's first language, he quickly learned English through schooling and interaction with neighbors. He and his siblings were educated at local Carleton College; his ...

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