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Elizabeth McKenzie

Elizabeth McKenzie is the author of a collection, Stop That Girl, short-listed for The Story Prize, and the novel MacGregor Tells the World, a Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicleand Library Journal Best Book of the year. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and the Pushcart Prize anthology, and has been recorded for NPR's Selected Shorts.

Blurbs

"The Portable Veblen is the squirreliest novel I ever read. I enjoyed it completely."

– Ursula K. Le Guin

"The Portable Veblen is an authentically strange—and genuinely funny—depiction of how the dysfunctions of childhood stubbornly follow us into adulthood."

– Teddy Wayne

"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

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The Portable Veblen

What We Talk about When We Talk about Talking to Squirrels

04/25/16

The Portable Veblen is like it sounds, which is to say you don’t know what it is until you get to know it better. Because The Portable Veblen is near impossible to say with grace, and your mother will ask you to repeat it, “The Por-what the what?” although it will come to make sense with a sort of twisted logic: the novel’s protagonist, Veblen, is a thirty-year-old Alice in the Wonderland of Northern California who dares to ask of you, “Do you think wishful thinking is a psychiatric condition?”

Elizabeth McKenzie’s third book (and second novel) follows the eponymous Veblen as she hurtles toward marriage on a sort of whim. Her fiancé, Paul, is a neurologist with a flashy new invention—the Pneumatic Turbo Skull Punch (how Vonnegut-ian)—that lands him a government contract. But the device is rushed to market when there’s profit to be made, and ethics are challenged, and commitments are challenged, and maybe Veblen and Paul have rushed things after all because how much do they really know about each other?

It’s true, Veblen talks to a squirrel: an ally nesting in the attic of her house and Paul’s near-comic nemesis. And to Veblen, the squirrel talks back (sort of).

McKenzie is unparalleled in making her characters’ neuroses palpably real and ultimately important, angling a keen eye to the role of mental health in life. Veblen, who can empathize with the last lima bean on the plate that gets scraped into the trash, is forever “living in a state of wistful anticipation for life to become as wonderful as she was sure, someday, it would.”

Beneath its rom-com surface, The Portable Veblen exploits the hypocrisy of health and healthcare when economics is involved. As satirical as Vonnegut, McKenzie’s touch is light and effective, hinting at class clashes and culture clashes and morality clashes (oh my).

But most of all this is a story of love and family, chosen and otherwise. Veblen’s mother is a brilliant yet hypochondriacal loon, an irrepressible intervener, a woman who named her daughter after an obscure (but actually not so obscure) Norwegian-American economist, Thorstein Veblen—Thorstein coined the term “conspicuous consumption.” While (our) Veblen’s father is an institutionalized burden of a man, an absent yet still undeniable presence in Veblen’s life and legend to her mental health.

Then there’s Paul family. Paul’s mother and father are weed farmers, loving hippies but, in Paul’s eyes, unreliable parents. His developmentally-disabled brother has overshadowed Paul’s own independence, an unwitting saboteur since childhood, and since childhood Paul has done his best to extricate himself from it all.

McKenzie’s prose dances in those spaces where these repressed and dysfunctional emotions are dancing apart:

[Veblen] formed this estimation in faith that it would be so, because that was what she wanted, a family at ease, a family free from the heat of a central beast, traveling through vents to cook you in every room.

The sensitive and nuanced handling of the intersections of family and love and disability is nothing short of brilliant.

The Portable Veblen is not just one thing: not just a satire, not just a rom-com, not just a novel about talking to squirrels. It is all these things at once. But at its heart is love, the bleakest and most optimistic and strangest thing there is, the most squirreliest nut to crack. And isn’t that what we talk about when we talk about love?

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