Roberta Brown-Jones, Nederland. I always enjoy books that are fictional but nonetheless expose me to real-life ideas and people that I previously knew nothing about. Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen, longlisted for the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction, is one of those books.
The novel’s lead character,, Veblen has been named after Thorstein Veblen, a Norwegian-American economist and sociologist who is perhaps most famous for coining the phrase “conspicuous consumption.” He was a late 19th-century non-conformist and “valiant foe of institutions and their ossified habits of mind.” McKenzie also brings into her narrative some of the ideas of American philosophers Richard Rorty and William James, both of whom deserve more exploration.
The heroine of the novel, Veblen Amundsen-Hovda, is a self-doubting, quirky character who has survived a difficult childhood. A translator of Norwegian texts and an office assistant, in her spare time she has conversations with squirrels. Despite her seeming mental instability, she is wise and has been raised to question assumptions, particularly those that are used in the service of selling one something.
Veblen develops a relationship with Dr. Paul Vreeland, a research physician in neurology doing a fellowship at Stanford, who has also experienced a troubled childhood. Interestingly, their relationship is kindled by “one of her favorite topics: the gargoyle of marketing and advertising.” Their initial discussions are about the “anticipatory daydream” that is used to lure consumers into desiring the objects that corporations are trying to sell—not your usual fodder for a budding romance. The dialogue between the two often brings up weighty topics like the link between “patriotic emotionalism” and the justification of “expenditures for defense.” The book constantly returns to the assertion that the evils of marketing have saturated just about every aspect of our lives, creating needs where there are none and commodifying things that shouldn’t be.
Veblen, analyzes everything, such as family relationships, marriage, and the relationship between humans and animals, which provides interesting perspectives on each topic. In addition, we receive a morality tale when Paul joins a pharmaceutical company’s trial of a device he has invented for treating brain-injured soldiers. As brilliant as he is as a researcher and inventor, he is still easily duped into worshipping the corporation he feels fortunate to have been employed by: “To his shame, he really believed the wealthy were superior.”
McKenzie creates an unusual novel by sprinkling odd photos, factoids, and illustrations that illuminate the narrative, but occasionally seem superfluous. She also explores word derivations throughout, making words like “perplexed” have new meaning: “But in Latin, . . .perplexed means thoroughly involved. Entwined and engaged. Totally the opposite of just being confused or out of it.” In addition, at the end of the novel we learn the fates of all the novel’s characters through a unique set of appendices.
McKenzie’s dialogue is often comical but also demonstrates how hard it often is for two people to understand each other in a meaningful way. The book explores how much couples inherit each other’s family dynamics and dysfunctions no matter how hard they may try to escape that upbringing as adults. Marriage in itself is depicted as a “negotiation of a shared future” that at its best doesn’t negate each person’s individuality.
Beyond the interesting nature of McKenzie’s storyline, the language she uses to describe everyday images enlivens the world around Veblen: “The skin of the old year was crackling, coming apart, the sewers sweeping it away beneath the roads.” Veblen keenly observes her world and has a sensual appreciation of even its humblest objects.
In The Portable Veblen readers will find not only a well-written tale but also an indictment of the ways that a consumer-driven society can be corrupting and destructive. Readers will leave the book, hopefully, with a new perspective on the importance of cherishing the non-material world and will have learned to question status that is based only on material wealth.
Roberta Brown-Jones is a Library Assistant at the Nederland Community Library. Sign up for “Book Club meets Science Cafe” a four month program at NCL funded by the National Science Foundation that will explore a different science-related theme each month by discussing both a book and some short, related video clips. The discussions will be moderated by Dr. Irene Shonle (Director of CSU Extension in Gilpin County) and Jay Mann. Call 303-258-1101 for more information.