[Ed. – Hey, it’s Saturday night and the news is slow out there. Do you really want to hear that Rob Portman has endorsed John Kasich? Plus, this stuff is relatable. Who among us could not think, “Gee, I wrote something like this when I was thirteen”?]
No matter how many novels you’ve read, it’s safe to say you’ve never read a novel like The Portable Veblen. A story devoted to exposing fraud in the defense procurement industry sounds like one kind of book—perhaps a John Grisham–style legal thriller. A story about dysfunctional families and the poisoned legacies that parents give their children sounds like a totally different genre. But Elizabeth McKenzie puts them together—and then adds a heroine who talks to squirrels, shoutouts to William James and Richard Rorty, and black-and-white photographs inserted into the text in the style of W.G. Sebald. She tells the story in a style so arch and whimsical that it seems almost tongue-in-cheek, yet proves tough enough to handle moments of real trauma and violence. …
The photographs [inserted in the text]…strike a comic note: Rather than introducing a feeling of mystery, as in Sebald, McKenzie uses them to illustrate utterly commonplace items in the text. (When someone offers Veblen an extra chicken burrito, there is a picture labeled “extra chicken burrito.”)
Yet when Veblen cages the attic squirrel and takes him on a meandering driving trip, all the while holding conversations with him about the meaning of love and happiness, you begin to realize that McKenzie means to blur the boundary between adorable eccentricity and actual madness. With a mother like Melanie and a father like Rudgear—a broken Vietnam vet who lives in an asylum—isn’t Veblen a prime candidate for mental illness? Because Paul and Veblen have rushed into marriage, he is still discovering these icebergs under the surface of her personality—and vice-versa.