Was this the stuff married life would be made of, two people making way for the confounding spectacle of the other, bewildered and slightly afraid?
The Portable Veblen begins with an engagement between Paul Vreeland, 34, and 30-year-old, Veblen Amundsen-Hovda:
…independent behaviorist, experienced cheerer-upper, and freelance self, who was having a delayed love affair with the world due to an isolated childhood and various interferences since.
In simple terms, the novel charts the period between Veblen and Paul’s whirlwind engagement and their wedding. But what McKenzie does in that period is examine family relationships: how they affect who we become and whether our view of our parents and siblings needs to be reassessed when we’re adults; questions whether marriage takes away something of ourselves; exposes some Big Pharma practices, and wonders whether squirrels have the power to change people’s lives.
Both Veblen and Paul have issues with their families. Veblen’s mother, Melanie C. Duffy, ‘intervenes’ constantly in Veblen’s life, particularly with regards to her physical and mental health.
From bracing them in defense since girlhood, her guts were robust, her tolerance for adversity high. By clearly emphasizing all that was lacking in others, by mapping and raising to an art form the catalog of their flaws, Veblen’s mother had inversely punched out a template for an ideal human being, and it was the unspoken assumption that Veblen would aspire to this template with all her might.
However, Melanie’s health – according to her – is poor. She’s worked through a number of doctors who’ve failed to give her an adequate diagnosis. Now Veblen’s marrying a doctor, she assumes he’ll abhor her. Prior to meeting Paul, Veblen’s avoided romantic relationships assuming no one would understand her, now she realises that in her early relationships, ‘she hadn’t been looking for a love affair, but rather a human safe house from her mother’.
Paul’s always felt sidelined by his family after growing up with a disabled brother. There’s no doubt this has contributed to his desire to become a doctor and his rapid move to a programme run by Hutmacher, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. At the Hutmacher funded veterans’ hospital he runs clinical trials on a device he’s designed which he believes will prevent permanent brain injury immediately after the damage has occurred.
And in the midst of all this, popping up repeatedly are the squirrels. Veblen’s house has a squirrel infestation in the attic, at least this is how Paul sees it. Since childhood she’s believed that squirrels are telling her something. The morning after the engagement while Paul’s out buying pastries, one appears at the bedroom window. It seems to respond to Veblen’s conversation through gestures and then places one of its hands on the glass as though it wants to touch Veblen’s face. She removes her engagement ring:
…she felt free to place the tips of her fingers on the glass where the squirrel’s hand was pressed. The squirrel studied her with warm brown eyes, as if to ask: How well do you know yourself, and all the choices you could make? As if to tell her, I was cut loose from a hellish marriage, and I want to meet muckrackers, carousers, the sweet-toothed, and the lion-hearted, and you don’t know it yet, but you are all of these.
But the squirrels come to play a bigger part in their lives than Paul, at least, might have predicted.
The Portable Veblen is a satirical take on dynamics and power in families, in relationships, in the medical profession and between humans and squirrels. It’s often laugh-out-loud funny but behind the humour and the borderline surreal incidents lie some serious questions about society. It’s Franzen at his best and most humorous – with squirrels – or A.M. Homes’ May We Be Forgiven with a much better ending – and squirrels. If I’d read it before Christmas it would most certainly have been on my Ones to Read preview. A gem.
If you want to sample the opening chapters for yourself, The Portable Veblen was The Pool’s Bedtime Book last week.
Thanks to Fourth Estate for the review copy.