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'Portable Veblen' Puts A Quirky Spin On Marriage And Family


This is FRESH AIR. Book critic Maureen Corrigan says that Elizabeth McKenzie, whose short stories have appeared in the New Yorker, has the kind of imagination that discovers hidden pockets of weirdness within the conventional marriage plot. Here's her review of McKenzie's new novel, "The Portable Veblen."

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Elizabeth McKenzie's novel "The Portable Veblen" makes me think of some students I've had over the years. They come into class all hip intellectual attitude, quoting esoteric writers and wearing ironic combinations of clothing, maybe a pressed Oxford cloth shirt over chefs' pants. But then they will show up in my office hours with a bag of Pepperidge Farm cookies to share, or they'll spend 20 minutes talking about their beloved dog back home. "The Portable Veblen" sends out those mixed messages, too. At bottom, it's a sweet, sharply-written romantic comedy about the pitfalls of approaching marriage. Yet cosmetically, the novel has some of the trappings of more experimental fiction. There are odd black-and-white illustrations scattered throughout the book, references to philosophers Richard Rorty and William James (inaudible) cameos by a squirrel, who, like the stage manager character in "Our Town," sagely observes the foibles of human affairs. Whatever literary category it falls into, "The Portable Veblen" winds up being totally endearing because it is so completely and originally itself. The offbeat title refers to our offbeat main character, a woman who was named after Thorstein Veblen, the turn-of-the-last-century Norwegian-American economist who gave us the idea of conspicuous consumption. Our Veblen's mother, an extremely narcissistic, pretentious woman named Melanie, worked for years on an unfinished doctoral dissertation about the famous economist. In tribute to him, Melanie not only burdened her daughter with that weighty moniker, but bequeathed to her a deeply-conflicted attitude about money and professional achievement. Consequently, the 30-year-old Veblen just scrapes by, translating documents from Norwegian and working as a temp office assistant at Stanford University's school of medicine. It's there that she meets Paul, a young doctor who's invented something called the pneumatic turbo skull punch for treating head traumas in the battlefield. Paul is cashing in big by selling this gizmo to a pharmaceutical company. And when the novel opens, he's just proposed to a dazed Veblen and presented her with the proverbial diamond as big as the Ritz. But Paul comes with family baggage of his own, namely a verbally-abusive mentally-challenged brother who's overindulged by Paul's old hippie parents. When the in-laws gather to celebrate the coming nuptials, lightning flashes, thunder roars and everybody has second thoughts about marriage. McKenzie doesn't write cute. Instead, this is a quirky novel that respects itself and so doesn't try too hard to win a reader over. McKenzie imbues her characters with such psychological acuity that they, as well as the off-kilter world they inhabit, feel fully formed and authentic. Veblen, for instance, is still in some ways an overgrown girl, sunny and self-effacing. We're told she still favored baggy, oversized boys clothes, a habit as hard to grow out of as imaginary friends. But of course, given Veblen's childhood as the handmaiden to that mother with her bottomless needs, there's much more here than meets the eye. Our narrator tells us in spite of her cheerfulness in the presence of others, one could see Veblen had gone through something that had left its mark. Sometimes her reactions seem to happen in slow motion, like old calloused manatees moving through murky water. Sometimes she wondered if she had some kind of processing disorder, or maybe it was just a defense mechanism. One could see she was bruised by all the dodging that comes of the furtive meeting of one's needs. Veblen worries that Paul will flee once he knows the depths of her family dysfunction and her own shortcomings. Our narrator tells us that in the economic tradition of her namesake, Veblen mulls over the fact that since when you marry you are offering yourself as a commodity, maybe it was time to clear up her product description. Of course, the joke is that within his own more conventional packaging, Paul and his family are also damaged goods. Along with its inspired eccentricities and screwball plot choreography, McKenzie's novel perceptively delves into that difficult life stage when young adults finally separate - or not - from their parents. In the end, "The Portable Veblen" is a novel as wise as it is squirrely.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Portable Veblen" by Elizabeth McKenzie.


GROSS: Tomorrow, we'll talk about the Iowa caucuses with Trip Gabriel, a New York Times political correspondent who's been reporting from Iowa for the past year. I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.