The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie
Penguin Press | Jan 19, 2016 | 448 Pages | 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 | ISBN 9781594206856
A philosophical novel about love and family, war and nature, new money and old values.
The Portable Veblen is a dazzlingly original novel that’s as big-hearted as it is laugh-out-loud funny. Set in and around Palo Alto, amid the culture clash of new money and old (antiestablishment) values, and with the specter of our current wars looming across its pages, The Portable Veblen is an unforgettable look at the way we live now. A young couple on the brink of marriage—the charming Veblen and her fiancé Paul, a brilliant neurologist—find their engagement in danger of collapse. Along the way they weather everything from each other’s dysfunctional families, to the attentions of a seductive pharmaceutical heiress, to an intimate tête-à-tête with a very charismatic squirrel.
Veblen (named after the iconoclastic economist Thorstein Veblen, who coined the term “conspicuous consumption”) is one of the most refreshing heroines in recent fiction. Not quite liberated from the burdens of her hypochondriac, narcissistic mother and her institutionalized father, Veblen is an amateur translator and “freelance self”; in other words, she’s adrift. Meanwhile, Paul—the product of good hippies who were bad parents—finds his ambition soaring. His medical research has led to the development of a device to help minimize battlefield brain trauma—an invention that gets him swept up in a high-stakes deal with the Department of Defense, a Bizarro World that McKenzie satirizes with granular specificity.
As Paul is swept up by the promise of fame and fortune, Veblen heroically keeps the peace between all the damaged parties involved in their upcoming wedding, until she finds herself falling for someone—or something—else. Throughout, Elizabeth McKenzie asks: Where do our families end and we begin? How do we stay true to our ideals? And what is that squirrel really thinking? Replete with deadpan photos and sly appendices, The Portable Veblen is at once an honest inquiry into what we look for in love and an electrifying reading experience.
Advance Praise for Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen
“Offbeat and winning…McKenzie writes with sure-handed perception, and her skillful characterization means that despite all of Veblen’s quirks—she’s an amateur Norwegian translator with an affinity for squirrels—she’s one of the best characters of the year. McKenzie’s funny, lively, addictive novel is sure to be a standout.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“McKenzie skewers modern American culture while quoting from a panoply of voices, with Frank Zappa, Robert Reich, and, of course, Thorstein Veblen among them. The result is a wise and thoroughly engaging story in a satirical style comparable to the works of Christopher Moore and Carl Hiaasen.”—Library Journal, starred review
“Will these kind, if somewhat confused, young people find their ways out of the past and to each other and a happy shared future? The reader can’t help rooting them on. McKenzie’s idiosyncratic love story scampers along on a wonderfully zig-zaggy path, dashing and darting in delightfully unexpected directions as it progresses toward its satisfying end and scattering tasty literary passages like nuts along the way.” —Kirkus, starred review
Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone:
“A clever morality tale set against the verdant paradise of Palo Alto. McKenzie’s story of an ambitious young neurologist and the seductions of the darker side of the medical economy is both incisive and hilarious.”
Karen Joy Fowler, PEN Faulkner winner for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves:
“Man oh man, do I love this book! I have never read anything like it. I can’t believe how funny it is given that we’re dealing at times with pharmaceutical fraud, irreparable brain injury, and comatose veterans. (Family dysfunction, on the other hand, is always funny)… Audacious, imaginative, and totally wonderful: The whole books zips and zings.”
Ursula K. Le Guin, author of The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness:
“The Portable Veblen is the squirreliest novel I ever read. I enjoyed it completely.”
Peter Ferry, author of Old Heart and Travel Writing:
“Make no mistake: McKenzie has written big; this is important stuff. Dave Eggers meets Beatrix Potter!”
Scott Hutchins, author of A Working Theory of Love: “Oh Palo Alto! Oh California! Oh war-torn, war-tired, science-obsessed U.S.A.! The bright, rollicking tone of this brilliant book is a testament to its absolute artfulness. We shift seamlessly from high humor to Mckenzie polishing her satirical blade. Intellectually supple, full of squirrels and Thorstein Veblen, that hero of American thought, this novel bursts with Mckenzie’s first-rate insight and multi-pronged, ever-surprising prose.”
Gabe Hudson, author of Dear Mr. President:
“Wildly entertaining and overflowing with piercing emotional truths, this audacious novel gives us an irresistible portrait of a sensitive young woman navigating the kaleidoscopic freakscape we call modern America. With casual aplomb, Elizabeth McKenzie tosses off sentences that will delight and bowl you over with their insight and hilarious truth-telling….An elegy for our dying empire, full of wisdom and finely tuned grace notes about the secrets of the human heart.”
Teddy Wayne, author of The Love Song of Jonny Valentine and Kapitoil:
“The Portable Veblen is an authentically strange—and genuinely funny—depiction of how the dysfunctions of childhood stubbornly follow us into adulthood.”
Samantha Hunt, author of The Invention of Everything Else and Mr. Splitfoot:
“A deeply observed universe where heroines are named for economists and the high stakes of capitalism are set to collide with the chatter of small wild animals. In a work both humorous and wrenching, everything casts multiple shadows while McKenzie tracks the distance between individuals, measuring the wildly human hope that love, might in the end, conquer all.” —
Nelly Reifler, author of Elect H. Mouse State Judge and See Through:
“In scalpel-sharp prose, The Portable Veblen’s gleefully perverse narrator seduces us with the story of a charming young woman soon to wed a handsome doctor. But strange shadows flicker just off the page and then begin to bleed into the story of the romance. The ethics of parenting, the disasters of war, corporate greed, the essential meanings of translation and invention, and the sacrifices of self to wedlock: these are some of the themes that surface in this extraordinary book. Oh, and also–what really is the soul of a squirrel? I was knocked out, giddily so, by The Portable Veblen.”
Christian Kiefer, author of The Animals and The Infinite Tides:
“Only Elizabeth McKenzie could make a novel—a great novel—with such weird and wonderful ingredients. The Portable Veblen gives us squirrels, love, family dysfunction, sex, marriage, medical science, and something called the Pneumatic Turbo Skull Punch, all swirled into a funny, beautiful, heartbreaking story. The Portable Veblen is about all of these things but mostly it’s about that most important of subjects: what it is to be human.”
Lydia Netzer, author of How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky:
“The Portable Veblen is a funny, modern love story, but also the story of everything that comes before love, its dark prerequisites and murky prequels…A wonderfully insane novel with talking squirrels and lunatic parents and comedic plot twists…populated by some of the most real, fully written characters I’ve met on any page. Don’t miss it.”