Elizabeth McKenzie's clever, romantic comedy broadcasts quirkiness right on its cover, with its potentially off-putting title and its illustration of a squirrel instead of the interlocked wedding rings you might expect. In the tradition of Elizabeth McCracken's The Giant's House and Graeme Simsion's The Rosie Project, The Portable Veblen is a smart charmer about a brainy off-center couple who face up to their differences — and their difficult, eccentric families — only after they become engaged. Although plenty whimsical — the squirrel has opinions! — this is ultimately a morality tale about the values by which we choose to live.
Thorstein Veblen, the Wisconsin-born Norwegian American economist and social critic who disdained materialism and coined the term "conspicuous consumption," is both the moral compass and namesake of McKenzie's idiosyncratic heroine. Veblen Amundsen-Hovda was reared by her divorced, hypochondriacal and unbearably manipulative mother, who named her only child after the subject of her never-completed doctoral dissertation. At 30, Veblen lives in a derelict bungalow in a rare, ungentrified corner of increasingly affluent Palo Alto, where she communes with a squirrel who has taken up residence in her attic. She supports herself as a temp, but her deeper calling involves writing about Thorstein Veblen and translating for the Norwegian Diaspora Project in Oslo.
She meets Paul Vreeland, an ambitious neurology fellow at Stanford, just as he's on the cusp of wild success: A pharmaceutical corporation has agreed to sponsor trials for the Pneumatic Turbo Skull Punch, a craniotomy device he has designed to relieve the brain-damaging pressure of head trauma on the battlefield.
McKenzie's novel inverts the traditional rom-com formula, opening where many end — with the couple's engagement. That's when their troubles begin. Paul's engagement ring might not be as big as the Ritz, but she considers the diamond "so large it would be a pill to avoid for those who easily gag." She sees her house as "rich" in squirrels, not "infested." Paul yearns for a stately home, unlike the nudist commune on which he grew up with his anti-establishment hippie parents and attention-hogging, brain-damaged older brother. While he covets the conventional trappings of success, she agrees with "the Easterlin paradox," which states that "your happiness shrinks in proportion to how much stuff you have." And where Paul envisions a posh wedding, Veblen's ideal nuptial site is the scrubby ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains where her namesake converted a chicken coop into a cabin in 1906 and died in 1929.
McKenzie plays all this for laughs, deftly interweaving outrageously uncomfortable meet-the-in-laws scenes with flashbacks to miserable childhood moments as she builds to a madcap climax in which everyone gets their due. A little of Veblen's narcissistic mother goes a long way, but fortunately the narrative quickly bounds past her. Bizarre illustrations scattered throughout the text — including a foil-wrapped chicken burrito and a photograph of the inventor of snow globes — heighten the quirky nerd factor, as do quotes from philosophers William James and Richard Rorty, and an appendix listing the word squirrel in 65 languages.
Serious ethical issues underpin McKenzie's satire of warped family dynamics and questionable medical marketing and research practices. The couple's parents have a knack for asking the right questions, even if for the wrong reasons. "Do you share the same ideals? That's crucial!" challenges Veblen's possessive mother, all too eager to break off the engagement. Discussing the pharmaceutical heiress who orchestrated Paul's lucrative deal, his father says, "I don't care how much money her family has, is she an accomplished and ethical human being?" He adds, "Don't let them steal your integrity."
Even the squirrel weighs in with shrill warnings. Like Thorstein Veblen, considered a scold and social outcast during his lifetime, squirrels are regarded by many as little more than screeching pests — but not in this novel. The Portable Veblen makes a case that the outspoken social critic's work, including his best-known book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, published in 1899 at the end of the Gilded Age, is consummately portable and relevant to our new Gilded Age of rampant materialism and what he derided as "decadent aestheticism." McKenzie's delightfully frisky novel touts a simpler, more natural environment — a world in which "underdogs and outsiders" like Thorstein Veblen, her appealing cast of oddballs and nonconformists, and even bushy-tailed rodents feel "free to be themselves."