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Family dynamics get all squirrelly in Elizabeth McKenzie's novel

The unpredictable The Portable Veblen is part comedy, part philosophy, and part talking squirrel.



It's difficult to describe Elizabeth McKenzie's new novel, The Portable Veblen, because it is so many different things all at once. It's the story of the courtship of Veblen Amundsen-Hovda and Paul Vreeland. It's an exploration of complicated family dynamics. It's a philosophical contemplation of life in northern California through the lens of the writings of the other Veblen, first name Thorstein, who coined the term "conspicuous consumption" and after whom Veblen Amundsen-Hovda is named. It's a biting satire of the military-industrial complex and the marketing of medical apparatus.

It is also funny and engaging and imbued with a very particular sensibility that might be described as "quirky" if that term had not become trivialized by its overuse; despite being full of jokes and turns of phrase that make a reader laugh out loud on the el during rush hour, The Portable Veblen is a serious and, at times, sad book. And there is a talking squirrel.

"I didn't really know at first if it would come together," says McKenzie, who, though a California resident, is also an editor at Chicago Quarterly Review. "It was a challenge. But these were things I'm interested in, so they must be connected somehow."

Well, the squirrel doesn't talk exactly. In earlier drafts, he was a detective, investigating crimes both squirrel and human. But, like all of us, he evolved. "The squirrel, in my mind, doesn't talk," McKenzie says. "He's a projection of Veblen's imagination, her idea of the real world and her voice of reason."

This is something Veblen's parents have failed to provide. Her mother, Melanie, is a narcissistic hypochondriac. Her father, Rudgear, is a war veteran who suffers from PTSD, among other ailments, and barely recognizes her. Paul's parents are hippies who concentrate most of their attention on their intellectually disabled older son. All together, they bring to mind the late essayist David Rakoff's crack that there should be a support group called Adult Children of Parents.

And yet, Veblen loves her parents. She loves Paul's parents, too. Like a squirrel, which, McKenzie notes, is a wild animal that has learned to adapt itself to human society, she constantly adjusts to accommodate their demands. (Or, as Veblen thinks to herself, "One could see she was bruised by all the dodging that comes from the furtive meeting of one's needs.") Oddly enough, McKenzie considers The Portable Veblen a tribute to her own mother, who died many years ago. "She's still a force in my life," she says, "and I hear her voice in my head. I like having her around. I'd talk to her about the book, and then I would know what to do next."

Until she finished writing, McKenzie wasn't sure how the novel would end. "I would write myself into corners," she says. "Anything could happen." That sense of surprise makes The Portable Veblen feel like an adventure in the best possible way.  v

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