The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie


Quite frankly, I would find it hard not to love a book that includes this line* –

“She felt fortunate to live near such an active riparian corridor.”

That’s toward the end of Elizabeth McKenzies’s latest novel, The Portable Veblen but there’s plenty more on a par with that kooky little gem.

“‘And I’m a major typer,’ she added. ‘Like, I’ll type the lyrics of a song while I’m listening to it.’ Why had she said this? It was only a side pocket of her whole entity.”

“There were many days he’d forgotten, wigs of days, hairpieces sitting on time, and there were secret warm joys hidden somewhere he could no longer find them.”

The story is ostensibly about the engagement of typing enthusiast, Veblen** and neurologist, Paul. However, though the introduction of the couple’s families; intense communication with squirrels; and the testing of medical equipment on war veterans, McKenzie also examines questions of nature versus nurture, the role of Big Pharmas, and the divide between an individual and their family.

McKenzie’s writing is like standing in front of a costume box, pulling out random things and wearing them all together (except with sentences instead of clothes). The result is disheveled, unique…memorable. And I mean all of that in the nicest possible way.

“She felt an intimation of change. That until now she was a Christmas tree that had been decorated by someone who hated Christmas.”

“He had a supersized capacity for hatred, as elastic as a colon, as vaulted as a cathedral ceiling, as open as a prairie sky…”

Ordinarily, I’m not into magic realism but Veblen’s discussions with squirrels are irresistible.

“The squirrel studies her with warm brown eyes, as if to ask: How well do you know yourself, and all the choices you could make? As if to tell her, I was cut loose from a hellish marriage, and I want to meet muckrakers, carousers, the sweet-toothed, and the lion-hearted, and you don’t know it yet, but you are all of these.”

Muckrakers and carousers, the sweet-toothed and the lion-hearted… it’s stupendous stuff.

And the squirrels played nicely against the frightful Marion, Veblen’s mother. Marion is a narcissist, a hypochondriac and a borderline personality, and her needy, manipulative interactions with every single person around her were exceptionally well written.

“No one would ever embrace her mother. No one will ever love me because of her. She was impaled on the truth of it.”

I loathe the word ‘quirky’ but will make an exception for The Portable Veblen. It’s odd, endearing, playful and believable (just overlook the squirrel bits.. or maybe don’t…). It’s charming and funny but doesn’t shy away from deeper messages.

4/5 Ace.

I received my copy of The Portable Veblen from the publisher, Harper Collins/ Fourth Estate, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

*blame my years working in river management
**named after the witty critic of capitalism, economist Thorstein Veblen, best remembered for coining the term “conspicuous consumption”

23 responses

    • It’s certainly one that you’d have to be in the right mood for.

      One of the strengths (and I should amend my review to include this) is that the plot isn’t overly cluttered – given that the language and characters aren’t typical, it allows you to focus and enjoy the right bits.

    • The only thing I could compare the style to is The Beautiful Bureaucrat – the writing is bizarre and unique. If you like that sort of thing, you would enjoy this one.

      Also, it’s just screaming out to be made into a movie…

  1. I just couldn’t get into this. I stuck it out but by the end of it I wasn’t sure what I’d read and what the point of it was – I wasn’t even string enough words together to write anything resembling a review. Reading your review though shows me that maybe I overlooked something. Perhaps I’ll reread it. One day!

    • Life’s too short to re-read books you didn’t love to bits! I think it’s one that will divide readers and I certainly think it’s one that you have to be in the right mood for. I looked at some of the Goodreads reviews and it seems a lot of people who didn’t like it also took it seriously… I’m fairly sure it was supposed to be funny and a bit ‘madcap’. Then again, maybe I’m wrong!

      • I agree that it was probably meant to be quirky and that’s how I read it, but I just couldn’t connect with it. And you’re right – life is too short for rereads of books you didn’t love. Maybe I’ll just leave it as one of those that didn’t work for me!

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