The Portable Veblen - review

by Charlotte Grimshaw / 22 April, 2016
Elizabeth McKenzie: willing to go anywhere. Photo/Linda Ozaki

Elizabeth McKenzie’s new novel is mad, chaotic, whimsical and occasionally very funny.

When Veblen Amundsen-Hovda lets it be known that she intends to marry Paul Vreeland, her mother reacts cautiously. “He is not vindictive and insane?” she asks. She dispenses some maternal wisdom: “Your mate becomes the mirror in which you see yourself. If he doesn’t see you as a beautiful pearl, you’ll wither. Does he see you as a beautiful pearl?”

Elizabeth’s McKenzie’s new novel begins with two dysfunctional families, and sprawls outwards to include weddings, battlefield trauma, the pharmaceutical industry, dodgy medical trials, the Department of Defence and squirrels. It’s mad, chaotic, whimsical and occasionally very funny.

Like Veblen, its central character, the novel conceals potency and resilience beneath a fey exterior. McKenzie, it seems, is willing to go anywhere. She takes an almost savage delight in gruesome detail, while at the same time filling her pages with small animals, nature and pretty scenes. The result is an unpredictable mash of modern horrors, domestic tyrannies, sinister undercurrents and much dialogue with squirrels.

Although devoted to Paul, Veblen is understandably wary of marriage, since her father lives in an institution and her mother is a narcissistic hypochondriac. Veblen, the family peacemaker, is an “experienced cheerer-upper”, and ­extra­ordinarily compliant with her crazy parents.

Paul, a high-achieving neuroscientist, has invented a device for use in battle­field trauma: essentially a high-tech hole-puncher that allows the skull to be punctured to take pressure off the brain. He is about to take part in a medical trial with veterans that will involve him in many uneasy and grotesque exchanges with relatives of the human guinea pigs.

His childhood was marred, Paul feels, by his hippie nudist parents, who forced him to live in a commune filled with degenerate stoners and prowling DEA agents. In reaction, he’s become a materialist, who yearns for money, success and a yacht.

Veblen was named after economist Thorstein Veblen, who wrote the 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class. Although she’s unnerved by Paul’s material­ism, she’s robust in her acceptance of his family, which includes his tremendously obnoxious brain-injured brother. Paul’s hatred of his brother adds another element of outrageous comedy to the mix.

So, in the midst of talking squirrels, sexual abuse, brain damage, psychological trauma, personality disorders and dark ­history, two families come together to discuss the joyful prospect of marriage.

The Portable Veblen is self-consciously au courant. It’s a novel that partakes of a fashionable tone: knowing, world-weary and cynical, yet whimsical to the point of cuteness. There’s no anger or deep feeling or high drama; the horrors of the world are expressed in terms of personal scars and cruxes, and the stock reaction to “evil” (in the form of a corrupt pharmaceutical company) is comedic.

It’s twee and frivolous, and descends into farce as Paul is menaced by wicked pharmaceutical heiress Cloris (who has a nasty son called Morris). But some of it is genuinely entertaining.

Above all, it’s worth wading through the silliness for the portrayal of Veblen’s mother, a truly awful and hilarious comic creation.

THE PORTABLE VEBLEN, by Elizabeth McKenzie (HarperCollins, $42.99) 

Charlotte Grimshaw’s most recent novel is Starlight Peninsula (Random House NZ).

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