One of the great pleasures of reading Elizabeth McKenzie is that she hears the musical potential in language that others do not – in the manufactured jargon of economics, in the Latin taxonomy of the animal kingdom, even in the names of our own humble body parts (who knew about the eye’s “zonule of Zinn”?). Her dialogue has real fizz and snappity-pop. It leaves a bubbled contrail.
McKenzie’s ear is not her only asset. There is also her angled way of seeing things.
“The Portable Veblen,” McKenzie’s second novel, may be her most cockeyed concoction to date.
McKenzie has strewn her text with tiny photographs – precious at first, they eventually tell their own story – and she’s tacked on a long caboose of appendices, including one written in Norwegian.
Have I mentioned that one of her characters is a squirrel? The heroine of this story, Veblen Amundsen-Hovda, chats with it regularly. Here she is, first trying to explain their incipient relationship to her fiancé, Dr. Paul Vreeland:
“This morning it came to the window – I think it wants to befriend me.”
“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.”
Poor Paul doesn’t know the half of it. She will eventually take this little guy on a road trip.
At the heart of McKenzie’s novel is Veblen’s bumbling struggle to make sense of her impending marriage. On the surface, she may be optimistic, adorable, a forest sprite. But underneath her jaunty exterior is a woman who’s stunted, foundering – a person who has never been allowed to become herself.
At 30, Veblen still surfs from one unchallenging administrative job to the next, conserving her real energy for her translation work for something called the Norwegian Diaspora Project in Oslo. She takes antidepressants every morning. She never finished college. She prefers to read, bike and compile trivia about squirrels and become a secret expert on the life and ideas of Norwegian-American economist Thorstein Veblen, for whom she was named.
The quirks of Veblen’s “freelance self,” as McKenzie puts it, would not be a problem if Veblen were on her own. But she is about to be married. Veblen’s best friend, a Jungian analyst in training named Albertine, is not convinced that her fiancé will tolerate them. “Marriage is a continuous inevitable confrontation that can be resolved only through death,” she tells her.
What readers begin to understand as her story unwinds is that each of Veblen’s tics and odd passions – including the one for squirrels (especially for squirrels) – has a back story. They are not what make her crazy. They are what make her sane. They were, and continue to be, a response to a catastrophic childhood.
For all its charm, bounce, radiant eccentrics and diverting episodes involving drug companies and squirrels, that is what “The Portable Veblen” is about: shaking the demented ghosts of our youth so that we can bind with clean spirits to someone in our adulthood.
Or, as Veblen puts it: “A wedding is the time and place to recognize the full clutch of the past in the negotiation of a shared future. Try devoting a few pages to that, Brides magazine!”
I won’t give away how the book ends. But “The Portable Veblen” is a novel of such festive originality that it would be a shame to miss.
The Portable Veblen
By Elizabeth McKenzie
Penguin Press, 430 pages.