Whimsy can be difficult to pull off in adult fiction. It requires a deft hand and careful attention to detail to make a few whimsical elements fold easily into an otherwise everyday story. But when whimsy is the cornerstone of a novel that tackles remarkably heavy and important issues, it can all start to feel like a prolonged, unfunny joke. This is the trap into which Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen falls.
Veblen Amundsen-Hovda is a temp working in the neurology department at Stanford University and spending her spare time translating Norwegian documents. One day she meets Paul Vreeland, a gifted doctor working on a groundbreaking device that could help soldiers who suffer brain injuries in the field, and the two begin a whirlwind love affair that results in their engagement within a few months of meeting. But when Paul receives a significant job change abd the two learn about each other’s family baggage, chaos threatens to tear them apart.
The novel is far reaching, a fact that could make The Portable Veblen illuminating. Sadly, it feels clunky and disorienting instead. Veblen is named after her hypochondriac mother’s hero, obscure economist and writer Thorstein Veblen who objected to the vapid materialism of the Gilded Age. Veblen herself admires her namesake immensely, and seems to consider him an almost religious figure, complete with a framed portrait of the thinker hanging on her wall. But she also has a lifelong obsession with squirrels, a relationship fostered by a lonely childhood overshadowed by the needs of her emotionally volatile and manipulative mother. Veblen and one particular squirrel, implied to have followed her since childhood, seem to have an almost telepathic relationship that drives her and Paul apart, as the squirrel subtly hints that the two aren’t ready for marriage.
As for Paul, he’s quickly swept up in the military-medical complex after a major pharmaceutical company learns about his device. Though he was raised by hippies, Paul is thrilled with the material gains and promising future offered by his position with Hutmacher Pharmaceuticals, but the reality of working in the high-risk high-reward world of military contracts is different from the life he imagined for himself. By the middle of the book Paul’s on edge, volatile and at times cruel to anyone who pushes back against his materialistic dreams.
The book touches on a lot of important issues, from Paul and Veblen’s troubled relationships with their parents to cronyism in military-medical cooperation. The book is set in Palo Alto, and a long explanation of Veblen’s small home touches on the rapid development that’s come to the once quiet area turned tech hub. Consumerism, environmentalism, language—all are given a turn in the spotlight as the novel unfolds. But McKenzie doesn’t linger long enough to make clear connections or get at the heart of any of these topics. Instead, they make up the backdrop of an otherwise shallow and one-dimensional story.
The characters remain strikingly uncomplex until the very end of the book, at which point the sudden resolution of every problem feels completely hollow. Everyone bounces between highs and lows, anger and calm without anything deeper than a surface-level exploration. Veblen’s role as keeper of the peace for her mother—and increasingly, for Paul—isn’t looked at critically, and as a result she feels more like vehicle for reading the subtle changes in behavior in those around her that could signal yet another outburst. Paul’s all-out rejection of his parents’ way of life reads too reactionary to be interesting, and he comes off as selfish and uncompassionate. Veblen’s mother’s hypochondria and extreme emotional swings, as well as Veblen’s father’s institutionalization and erratic behavior, are treated solely as baggage for the young woman, baggage she just has to learn to carry.
On top of all of this is the squirrel. Among the first things the reader learns about Veblen is that she talks to squirrels and appears to believe they can talk back, which causes the first disagreements she and Paul discover in their relationship. The idea of Veblen anthropomorphising squirrels and other animals as a young girl in response to her mother’s volatility is interesting, but McKenzie never looks at Veblen’s talking to squirrels as more than a quirk. As an adult, Veblen is a child-like pseudo-Disney Princess who befriends the local woodland animals and takes them on roadtrips. In an otherwise grounded novel, it doesn’t fit or feel realistic.
Littered with pictures and relying on an appendix of faux-documents to serve as an epilogue, The Portable Veblen simply doesn’t follow through on its own potential. It’s a surface-level book in which the good guys ultimately come through and the bad guys are punished, with little room for reflection or deeper exploration of the book’s themes. Overly cluttered with ideas and ambitions, The Portable Veblen ends up falling disappointingly short.