A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
First, allow me a small amount of gloating. I am usually hopeless at reading the latest releases at the time they are actually released. I’m very good at reading things that are a year or two old, but with the odd exception for very favourite authors, I have so many books waiting to be read already that brand new releases fall down the pecking order. However! The Portable Veblen appeared on so many ‘books to read in 2016’ lists that I pre-ordered it and read it almost as soon as it arrived. Hark at me.
Veblen is a 30 year old woman who is a passionate advocate of the anti-consumerist views of her namesake, the Norwegian-American economist and sociologist who wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899. She even has a framed portrait of him hanging in her cottage, before which she often sits, deep in thought. I imagine her to be much like the “adorkable” character played by Zooey Deschanel in New Girl: all big glasses and quirky dresses and social awkwardness. I wouldn’t blame her for the social awkwardness. Her mother is clearly suffering from various mental illnesses, not least some kind of narcissistic personality disorder which makes her utterly convinced that literally everything Veblen does is an attack on her. (It’s not.)
Then Veblen meets Paul, a neurologist who works at the hospital where she is a temporary administrator. He has recently invented a medical device to relieve brain injuries sustained in the battlefield, and is in the process of beginning trials on human subjects. He has the backing of a major pharmaceutical firm, much to the chagrin of his own parents who are more closely aligned to Veblen’s outlook that Paul’s much more “traditional” views. Despite their wildly different views, Veblen and Paul quickly fall in love and get engaged within a few months. That’s when it all goes a bit wonky.
Meeting parents, dealing with various family quirks, reconciling being in love with a fundamentally good person who is heavily involved in Big Pharma all make the road to the altar a tricky one. And then there’s Veblen’s obsession with squirrels. Paul has some issues with that. Seriously, there are a lot of squirrels in this novel.
I mostly enjoyed The Portable Veblen. It began very well, and it ended brilliantly, but I must confess to starting to lose a bit of interest in the middle. It’s not a short book at approximately 450 pages, and I definitely felt the middle section could have been tightened up some. I’m not usually one to stick with books I’m losing faith with (like I said before, I have many, many books waiting to be read and I think life is too short to read something you’re not enjoying) but something did keep me going with this one. I think it was the narrative voice, which was compelling, and actually, I found myself more interested in Paul’s experiences in the slightly shady world of medical trials than I was in Veblen and her squirrels. I’m glad I did stick with it, though, as the novel’s conclusion was pretty perfect if you ask me.
There have been quite a lot of comparison between this and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (another book I liked but didn’t necessarily love) and I can definitely see the similarities in terms of quirky protagonists and prominent animals. If you loved that novel then you may well have stronger feelings on The Portable Veblen than I do. There is a lot of hype around this book after all, and I think it is almost – almost – deserved. I’ll be keeping an eye out for what else Elizabeth McKenzie produces in the future.
Elizabeth McKenzie: The Portable Veblen (London: Fourth Estate, 2016). Hardback, ISBN 9780008160388, RRP £12.99.