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The Portable Veblen

September 26, 2016

I really enjoyed reading The Portable Veblen, by Elizabeth Mckenzie. I’d read about Stefanie’s experience with reading it, and thought that I would probably like it in a similar way–and it’s true, I did like reading it slowly and prolonging my stay in Veblen’s world for a little while. Towards the end, though, I got a little weary of the smallness of her world and what I saw as her eccentric Californian pretentions, and I finished the book and put it aside for a little while, to see how my feelings about it would ripen if I left them alone.

So it’s been a couple of weeks, and my feelings about the book are fond. It’s a nice little novel about some very interesting characters, and I found that I didn’t mind the squirrel’s-eye view of the last scene in retrospect as much as I did when I first read it. And the epilogue makes up for how small I was finding the world—evidently, the characters shared this feeling, and got out!

Veblen is an interesting and sympathetic character. “In spite of her cheerfulness in the presence of others, one could see this woman had gone through something that had left its mark. Sometimes her reactions seemed to happen in slow motion, like old, calloused manatees moving through murky water.” A lot of thoughtful people would probably describe themselves that way, so although the description goes on to talk about Veblen’s psychiatrist, it’s not hard to imagine seeing the world through her eyes.

A lot of the conversations in this novel are very interesting; just little bits and pieces, like this exchange between Veblen and Paul, her fiancée:
“’We’re old enough not to care what our parents think, but somehow we do,’ Paul admitted, philosophically.
‘That’s for sure.’
‘Because they allowed us to exist.’
She had once concluded everyone on earth was a servant to the previous generation—born from the body’s factory for entertainment and use. A life could be spent like an apology—to prove you had been worth it.”

At first I was charmed by Veblen’s fondness for wildlife, especially squirrels:
“’This morning it came to the window—I think it wants to befriend me,’ Veblen said, quite naturally.
‘You can make other friends. This squirrel isn’t a character in a storybook. Real animals don’t wear shawls and top hats and write poetry. They rape each other and eat their own young.’
‘Paul, that’s an excessively negative view of wildlife.’
I feel like I’ve had this kind of conversation before, except that I’ve never been brave enough to use the word “befriend.”

I worried that Veblen’s individuality was going to be influenced by continuing her relationship with Paul, much as any sane mother would worry (in comparison to Veblen’s fictional mother, who most definitely does not fall into the “sane” category in anyone’s book). Veblen herself worries, thinking “First squirrels, then turkey meatballs, then corn, then—what next? Marriage could be a continuing exercise in disappearances.” Ron sometimes says he gave up nuts in brownies when he married me, although I occasionally make some with nuts just for him. I will sometimes say that I gave up chopped-up grapes and sweet relish in tuna or chicken salad when I married Ron, but the truth is that I often order it when I’m out somewhere. So it seemed a minor worry, something that an engaged person might fixate on but could turn out not to be very important.

As the relationship continues, the reader gets more concerned about Veblen’s relationship with Paul, through Veblen’s mother’s attempt to find him lacking (as she had with other people throughout Veblen’s life: “They never found a soul with the same values. The moral fiber of others was always weak and frayed as far as her mother was concerned”).

As the plot progresses, though, readers find new correspondences between Veblen’s peculiarities and Paul’s, which have been better hidden. We find out about his brother and his high school science fair project, in which he attempts to replicate an occasion from when he was ten years old and thought he heard snails screaming when he had 72 of them in a bucket and was about to feed them to the chickens. We see Paul reject easy fame and fortune in favor of doing good research and telling the truth. And then finally we see Paul rescue a squirrel from certain death by throwing himself under a car in its place.

I love how Veblen realizes her love for Paul partly by remembering a concert they went to (three bars of the score are reproduced as an illustration on the page) in which she “kept waiting for the theme at the beginning to return, but it never did” and Paul said it was his favorite because of “the way it builds.” Veblen’s reaction to this memory is to think that “she’d have to listen to it again. To everything again.” Which is about as good a description of married love as I’ve ever heard.

There are some silly machinations with Veblen taking a squirrel on a car ride and spending the night in a motel with it, and Paul’s sleazy boss getting what she richly deserves from her spoiled and neglected child. And then the squirrel’s-eye-view of the ending, as I mentioned, which made the preceding action seem a bit silly and precious to me, on first reading.

The ending is of a piece, though. Lots of peculiarities and excesses in people can seem precious or even obnoxious to you if you do not care about them. That’s actually one of the points of the novel. So in the end, I was charmed by it; I allowed myself to be.

Have you allowed yourself to be charmed by anything, lately?

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. September 26, 2016 2:26 pm

    So glad you liked it! Yes, I was charmed too and it was nice and I still retain a very fond feeling for the book 🙂

    • September 28, 2016 10:30 am

      I would probably not have picked it up except for your review! I found it in a bookstore in Chapel Hill, so lucked into a signed copy.

  2. September 28, 2016 10:43 am

    This sounds like a quiet book that kind of grows on you as a reader. I’ll have to look for it.

    • September 28, 2016 10:47 am

      It is a quiet book, but then there are moments like when a character thinks he hears snails screaming! It’s never quite clear what went on there, whether it was entirely in his head or not.

  3. September 28, 2016 12:22 pm

    This is on my TBR and I’m glad to have your recommendation (and Stefanie’s.)

    The last book I was charmed by was Angela Thirkell’s High Rising, the first in her Barsetshire books. It was a trifle of a book, but it was delicious fun.

    • September 28, 2016 2:43 pm

      Sometimes a trifle of a book is just the thing.

  4. September 28, 2016 9:58 pm

    Oh I love the construction of allowing yourself to be charmed by a book. That’s exactly how it goes sometimes — where a book has visible flaws and you recognize them, but you’re still able to choose to ignore them and find the book winning.

    • September 29, 2016 8:26 am

      Yes, “winning” is a nice word for this, because you’re allowing yourself to be won over.

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