Whether this quirky, gently postmodern novel is a book you will love or hate depends largely on how you feel about whimsy. It tackles a host of serious topics–the military industrial complex, the marriage industrial complex, whether we owe our families a debt and to what degree we’re obligated to pay it down–but often in distinctly unserious ways. Conversational squirrel, anyone?
I don’t imply that The Portable Veblen is shallow or has nothing to say, or that it name-drops the titular noted economist (and other cultural greats like William James and Richard Rorty) without reason. No, subjects like the deeply conflicted attitudes about money and success held by many millennials and the meaning of marriage in contemporary American culture actually form the backbone of this novel. It is, however, also very character-driven, and the main character knows no end of whimsy. Her perspective seeps into McKenzie’s imagery and turns of phrase, so that a squirrel’s markings resemble Victorian finery and potted flowers become cancan skirts.
The result is a novel that uses devices familiar from heavy works like W.G Sebald’s Austerlitz and George Orwell’s 1984 but tonally is hewn more like a Tom Robbins or Douglas Adams novel. There are stark images of age-related dementia and a soldier with PTSD nestled alongside a cozy cottage with grass growing on the windowsill; childbirth injury and economic theories cozy up with a little girl who carries a typewriter everywhere. At the end, everything is more or less wrapped up nicely, with appendices that lend even more tidiness to the narrative (as well as, yes, extra whimsy). The whole thing feels very timely, and if its audience is Americans around the same age and economic class as the main characters, it will speak to them very well. For other readers, the proximity of the cute and the grotesque, the blurry line between appealing eccentricity and dangerous madness, and the arch treatment of veterans’ issues might make completing the nearly 450-page novel unappealing.
Those who do finish this tome will likely find it worthwhile for the writing, even if the characters don’t win them over. The descriptions of a war simulator, the vibrant impressions left by characters who only appear fleetingly, and the careful attention to rooms and spaces mark McKenzie as among the better novelists writing today. The oodles of backstory mean there are no nagging plot holes, and unlike some other works of this complexity, all that detail doesn’t make for chunks of confusing text. While perhaps not for everyone, the book manages to charm almost as much as the squirrel gracing its front cover.
The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie (Penguin Press | 9781594206856 | January 19, 2016)