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).

Follow the Listener on Twitter or Facebook.


My Brilliant Friend: The HBO adaptation of Elena Ferrante comes to NZ television
99028 2018-11-19 00:00:00Z Television

My Brilliant Friend: The HBO adaptation of Elena F…

by Fiona Rae

A new TV series stars two women in repressed, male-chauvinist Naples and is filmed in Neapolitan.

Read more
If I were a rich man: A grammarian on the nettlesome subjunctive
98551 2018-11-19 00:00:00Z Diversions

If I were a rich man: A grammarian on the nettleso…

by Ray Prebble

Many people find themselves using one or other of these subjunctive forms without really knowing why.

Read more
As China shuts its gates to our plastics and paper, how can NZ stem the tide?
99059 2018-11-19 00:00:00Z Planet

As China shuts its gates to our plastics and paper…

by Veronika Meduna

Unless we get serious about recycling, there’ll be a tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish in the ocean by 2025.

Read more
Heights of contradiction: American and Israeli Jews' complicated relationship
99055 2018-11-18 00:00:00Z World

Heights of contradiction: American and Israeli Jew…

by Todd Pitock

Todd Pitock's travels through Israel reveal the true differences between American and Israeli Jews.

Read more
The Democrat's midterm wins spell the end of Trump's dream run
99105 2018-11-18 00:00:00Z World

The Democrat's midterm wins spell the end of Trump…

by Paul Thomas

Far from being Trump’s near-“complete victory”, the midterms mean opportunities for rigging electoral boundaries have swung back towards the Dems.

Read more
Sally Rooney's Normal People has the makings of a classic
99094 2018-11-18 00:00:00Z Books

Sally Rooney's Normal People has the makings of a …

by Kiran Dass

Normal People is sharply observed portrait of an on-off romance and a book you need to read.

Read more
Why you should avoid 'eating for two' during pregnancy
98747 2018-11-18 00:00:00Z Health

Why you should avoid 'eating for two' during pregn…

by Ruth Nichol

Doubling down on food during pregnancy is out, unless it’s diet quality we’re talking about.

Read more
The long, slow goodbye to Angela Merkel
99173 2018-11-17 00:00:00Z World

The long, slow goodbye to Angela Merkel

by Cathrin Schaer

German Chancellor Angela Merkel plans to leave the job in 2021, but that’s not soon enough for some.

Read more