Veblen Amundsen-Hova is an unusual young woman, and not just because she was named after Norwegian-American economist Thorstein Veblen, best known today for coining the phrase “conspicuous consumption” and his still-relevant 1899 treatise The Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen Amundsen-Hova can communicate with squirrels. Considering Veblen’s dysfunctional childhood—a distant father she barely knew, a mother who is a narcissistic hypochondriac—it makes perfect sense that she would have found solace and friendship with Sciurus griseus.
As the novel opens, Veblen has just accepted a proposal of marriage from her boyfriend Paul, complete with an enormous diamond ring. Paul is a rising star in the field of medical research, studying brain trauma in war veterans. He has recently invented a device to treat battlefield head injuries that has piqued the interest of the Department of Defense as well as Hutmacher Pharmaceuticals, which believes the invention could be worth millions. Veblen, meanwhile, is a temp who earns just enough money to afford a humble rental and spends her spare time translating documents for the Norwegian Diaspora Project. (“Keeping a low overhead was part of her mind-set… She believed it was important to be fairly compensated for your time and work, but that it was also important not to earn a bunch of money just to play a predetermined role in the marketplace.”) Paul assumes that once he hits it big with his device, they’ll move into a suitably grand house and hobnob with his friends: “doctors, architects, financiers.” However, when he introduces Veblen to his crowd, they quickly lose interest in her: “when they found out she wasn’t on a notable career path, they seemed unable to synthesize her into their social tableau, as if Paul had chosen a mail-order bride.”
Elizabeth McKenzie deftly sets up the conflict between conspicuous consumption and the Veblenesque desire to live simply; Veblen even uses a manual typewriter. However, Paul’s status-seeking is ultimately revealed to be a rejection of his hippie parents’ chaotic, rural lifestyle, which we learn about in flashback. Perhaps an even more challenging obstacle to Paul and Veblen’s relationship is the fact that he hates squirrels. “It’s my stated goal to keep pests out of our lives,” he announces as he sets a trap to catch the critters running around Veblen’s attic and keeping him awake at night. Can true love overcome such seemingly intractable obstacles?
The Portable Veblen is so strange and marvelous and delightful—an off-kilter love story as well as a biting satire of the military-industrial complex—and McKenzie portrays her characters with boundless empathy and compassion, even the least-lovable among them, like Veblen’s difficult mother. This is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.