The Portable Veblen (Paperback)
Penguin Books, 9781101981597, 448pp.
Publication Date: November 1, 2016
Other Editions of This Title:
February 2016 Indie Next List
— Rico Lange (E), Bookshop Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, CA
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Longlisted for the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction
Finalist for the Baileys Prize for Women's Fiction
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.
About the Author
Praise For The Portable Veblen: A Novel…
“McKenzie has crafted a story that beneath an entertaining, clever surface, is deep and wise and complicated….With so light a touch and yet more serious and beautiful and relevant than many a weightier novel, The Portable Veblen has the feel of an instant, unlikely classic.” —Jeff VanderMeer in the Los Angeles Times
“Riotous …A delightfully knotty synthesis of psychological study, philosophical inquiry, romantic page-turner, and economic critique.”—Electric Literature
“A delightfully cockeyed love story that enfolds two splendidly dysfunctional families and a winningly persistent squirrel.”—More Magazine
“‘Funny and engaging and imbued with a very particular sensibility that might be described as ‘quirky’ if that term had not become trivialized by its overuse; despite being full of jokes and turns of phrase that make a reader laugh out loud…The Portable Veblen is a serious and, at times, sad book. And there is a talking squirrel.”—Chicago Reader
“Full of vibrant passages that practically leap off the page and twirl around the room. Veblen and Paul become richer, more nuanced characters as the book continues, thanks in part to McKenzie’s deft and amusing exploration of the conflicts between them and their parents. She also unleashes her satirical powers on Big Pharma and the defense industry.”—Dallas Morning News
“[Veblen] is a rich, well-rounded character…McKenzie…weaves in historical and cultural factoids about the Bay Area that truly make the novel zing…Satirical, funny, and satisfyingly clever, The Portable Veblen weaves multiple narrative threads into a seamless whole.”—KQED
“Irresistibly comedic…McKenzie…has an appealingly light, playful touch…‘The Portable Veblen’ is about how very squirrelly family dysfunction can be — and about how, as many of us never get tired of reading, love sometimes can conquer all.”—Seattle Times
“Modern romance, Big Pharma, and one very intuitive squirrel collide in McKenzie’s clever, winningly surreal novel…McKenzie has a pitch-perfect ear for a certain kind of California kookery…It’s hard not to be charmed by Veblen’s whimsy. Grade: A–.”-Entertainment Weekly
“A sweet, sharply written, romantic comedy about the pitfalls of approaching marriage… McKenzie imbues her characters with such psychological acuity that they, as well as the off-kilter world they inhabit, feel fully formed and authentic…With its inspired eccentricities and screwball plot choreography, McKenzie’s novel perceptively delves into that difficult life stage when young adults finally separate—or not—from their parents. In the end, The Portable Veblen is a novel as wise as it is squirrely.”—Maureen Corrigan, NPR’s Fresh Air
“One of the great pleasures of reading Elizabeth McKenzie is that she hears the musical potential in language that others do not…Her dialogue has real fizz and snappity-pop. It leaves a bubbled contrail. Ms. McKenzie’s ear is not her only asset. There is also her angled way of seeing things. The hats on all of her characters sit slightly askew…For all its charm, bounce, radiant eccentrics and diverting episodes involving drug companies and squirrels, that is what ‘The Portable Veblen’ is about: shaking the demented ghosts of our youth so that we can bind with clean spirits to someone in our adulthood…A novel of such festive originality that it would be a shame to miss.”—Jennifer Senior, The New York Times
“A winning satire of contemporary mores…McKenzie has written a funny, deeply critical book with the heart of a cynic and the texture of a soufflé.”—Boston Globe
“A smart charmer about a brainy off-center couple who face up to their differences — and their difficult, eccentric families — only after they become engaged…[The Portable Veblen] is ultimately a morality tale about the values by which we choose to live…McKenzie’s delightfully frisky novel touts…a world in which ‘underdogs and outsiders’ like Thorstein Veblen, her appealing cast of oddballs and nonconformists, and even bushy-tailed rodents feel ‘free to be themselves.’”—NPR.org
“Clever…This novel is like vegetables cut on a bias: slightly skewed, pleasing to look at, and, thanks to its skilled chef, a joy to consume…A funny and well-written novel about family, love and the perils of misplaced ambition.”—BookPage
“Ambitious…[McKenzie’s domestic scenes] accurately and funnily capture the complexities of modern families, made knotty by the work we’re encouraged to do in our individual lives. Think The Corrections meets The Wallcreeper—where the warring wants of career-centric success and familial harmony converge, tension and comedy emerge.”—Huffington Post
“[A] funny, philosophical novel…Oddball characters and plot turns abound, including talking squirrels and bureaucratic ironies worthy of ‘Catch-22.’ But a sober question occupies its core: Do our parents' best intentions do us harm?”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“A wild ride that you will not want to miss… rambunctious and sober, hilarious and morbid, [with] strong echoes of Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut…This unforgettable novel offers a heartfelt and sincere investigation into the paradoxical nature of love, familial as well as romantic.”--Elizabeth Rosner, San Francisco Chronicle
“No matter how many novels you’ve read, it’s safe to say you’ve never read a novel like The Portable Veblen. The Portable Veblen brings together its disparate themes and worlds with confidence and dexterity, making the standard well-made novel seem as timid as—well, as a squirrel.”- Slate
“McKenzie skewers modern American culture while quoting from a panoply of voices, with Frank Zappa, Robert Reich, and, of course, Thorstein Veblen among them. The result is a wise and thoroughly engaging story in a satirical style comparable to the works of Christopher Moore and Carl Hiaasen.”—Library Journal (starred review)
"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." —Kirkus, starred review
“Offbeat and winning…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.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“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.” -Abraham Verghese, New York Times bestselling author of Cutting for Ston
“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.”-Karen Joy Fowler, PEN Faulkner winner for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselve
“The Portable Veblen is the squirreliest novel I ever read. I enjoyed it completely.”-Ursula K. Le Guin, author of The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness
"Wildly entertaining and overflowing with piercing emotional truths, this audacious novel gives us an irresistible portrait of a sensitive young woman navigating the kaleidoscopic freakscape we call modern America. With casual aplomb, Elizabeth McKenzie tosses off sentences that will delight and bowl you over with their insight and hilarious truth-telling....An elegy for our dying empire, full of wisdom and finely tuned grace notes about the secrets of the human heart."-Gabe Hudson, author of Dear Mr. President
“The Portable Veblen is an authentically strange—and genuinely funny—depiction of how the dysfunctions of childhood stubbornly follow us into adulthood.”-Teddy Wayne, author of The Love Song of Jonny Valentine and Kapitoil
"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."-Christian Kiefer, author of The Animals and The Infinite Tides
"A deeply observed universe where heroines are named for economists and the high stakes of capitalism are set to collide with the chatter of small wild animals. In a work both humorous and wrenching, everything casts multiple shadows while McKenzie tracks the distance between individuals, measuring the wildly human hope that love, might in the end, conquer all." —Samantha Hunt, author of The Invention of Everything Else and Mr. Splitfoot
“In scalpel-sharp prose, The Portable Veblen's gleefully perverse narrator seduces us with the story of a charming young woman soon to wed a handsome doctor. But strange shadows flicker just off the page and then begin to bleed into the story of the romance. The ethics of parenting, the disasters of war, corporate greed, the essential meanings of translation and invention, and the sacrifices of self to wedlock: these are some of the themes that surface in this extraordinary book. Oh, and also--what really is the soul of a squirrel? I was knocked out, giddily so, by The Portable Veblen.”-Nelly Reifler, author of Elect H. Mouse State Judge and See Through
“The Portable Veblen is a funny, modern love story, but also the story of everything that comes before love, its dark prerequisites and murky prequels…A wonderfully insane novel with talking squirrels and lunatic parents and comedic plot twists…populated by some of the most real, fully written characters I've met on any page. Don't miss it.”-Lydia Netzer, author of How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky
Praise for Elizabeth McKenzie's Stop That Girl
"Vibrant and clear, these connected stories present a portrait of a family whose members are funny and hurtful and real, and watching them touched by time and change is very affecting. There is a lovely expansiveness here; surrounding the humor is the recognition that life is a serious deal."-Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteredge
“McKenzie is an accomplished humorist and a developed stylist, and she wastes no time dazzling the reader with her clean direct language, her simple but searing use of metaphor and her unflinching eye. The paragraphs are put together with razor sharp concision, and the book is rich in both narrative and linguistic surprise. An original."-The New York Times Book Review
Praise for Elizabeth McKenzie
"A wonderful talent."-Jane Hamilton, author of The Book of Ruth and The Map of the World
"McKenzie has a wonderful eye – and a relishing appetite – for the craziness that is everywhere in ordinary things if you know how to look."-Tessa Hadley, author of Married Love and Accidents in the Home
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
1. When Paul proposes, he presents Veblen with a diamond ring that becomes a source of contention throughout the novel. At that point in their relationship, should he have known she wouldn’t like it? Are engagement rings symbols of love, outmoded displays of conspicuous consumption, or something in between?
2. Early on, Veblen listens to her coworker Laurie’s “daily conversations with her husband” and is dismayed by the fact that she always ends the phone call by saying, “Love you” (p. 17). Do you agree with Veblen that leaving out the “I” is an ominous sign?
3. Can Veblen really talk with squirrels? Has an animal ever spoken to you?
4. Both Veblen and Paul come from “dysfunctional” families. Is one family more so than the other? Are there “functional” families or just gradations of dysfunction?
5. After Paul tells Veblen about his family’s year as nudists, she thinks, “But repeated viewings of her mother’s unclad emotions had been way worse” (p. 182). Do you agree or disagree?
6. Paul tells Veblen that “it’s hard to watch Linus squirming under [Melanie’s] thumb” (p. 217). Yet Linus seems perfectly content caring for his hypochondriac wife. How do you view Melanie and Linus’s marriage?
7. Discuss an instance in which McKenzie uses the Pneumatic Turbo Skull Punch as a metaphorical device.
8. When Paul mistakenly comes to think that Veblen is cheating on him, he ransacks her cottage and discovers that she secretly takes antidepression medication. How would you feel if your fiancé hid this information from you?
9. Almost twenty years later, Paul continues to nurse anger toward Millie’s mother for separating him from Millie. What did you think about her decision? Would the adult Paul really want to have become a father at sixteen?
10. If Paul had not become disillusioned with Hutmacher Pharmaceuticals, would he and Veblen have been happy together? If it weren’t for Veblen, would he have allowed the company to market his invention without adequate testing?
11. Is Justin consciously trying to sabotage Paul’s happiness? How does Paul’s marriage improve Justin’s life? Is it fair of Paul to resent Justin’s sexuality?
12. Does Cloris Hutmacher deserve her fate? To what extent do you think McKenzie’s depiction of Hutmacher Pharmaceuticals is exaggerated?
13. The ’60s counterculture movement—as represented by Paul and Veblen’s parents—comes in for as much lampooning as the pharmaceutical industry and the military. Do hippies deserve as much mockery as drug company barons and military brass?
14. How much did you know about Thorstein Veblen before reading McKenzie’s novel? Did The Portable Veblen make you rethink your current level of consumer consumption?