Review: The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie


Although only published a few months ago in January 2016, Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen was a book which did not seem to appear on my radar until longlisted (and consecutively shortlisted) for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. The first thing which immediately captured my interest was the books absolutely beautiful design. The cover is simplistically attractive, depicting, perhaps rather strangely, a squirrel. To be brutally honest, as an animal lover the squirrel was the only thing needed to spark my desire to read this book. But the work the cover artist has created is truly gorgeous, not to mention the absolutely stunning vibrant pink concealed underneath the dust jacket. My hopes were truly high when I recently bought this book; it is a massive shame that the book’s appearance did not reflect the books actual substance.

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This book follows Veblen, an amateur translator, and Paul, a talented neurologist, who at the books start become engaged. What follows is essentially a look at the lives of these two individuals, the families which they both come from and the various ways in which they are both constrained or controlled. Veblen’s mother is a hypochondriac, whilst her father is a resident of a mental institute, leaving Veblen as a young woman who has spent her whole life sacrificing herself in an attempt to maintain the fragile peace of her family life. Paul’s parents, on the other hand, are former carefree hippies, with Paul feeling neglected in favour of his disabled older brother, despite his growing fame within the field of medical research.

One of the most disappointing aspects of this book was the way in which both the book’s cover, the blurb, and the press all relied so heavily on the fact that Veblen starts to believe a squirrel is not only following her, but actually attempting to communicate with her. Personally, I felt like this was bordering upon false advertisement. Whilst the squirrel is mentioned, I felt that he was a supremely minor aspect of the book, and upon reflection I can only truly think of several key moments when the squirrel appears. The last quarter of the book did seem to feature the squirrel in a more entertaining way, even allowing him words from his own perspective. Yet overall I truly struggled to believe in Veblen and her apparent connection with this furry friend, as well as the highly doubtful way she believes he is trying to guide her life in some way.

The plot itself is rather slow paced, something which does not normally deter or disappoint me. Typically in slow paced books I am able to build up a connection to the characters and invest myself in their lives. The book uses many flashbacks to both Veblen and Paul’s past, and whilst this does allow the characters to gain some substance, I still felt wholly devoid of any attachment or investment in them as people.. Even the emotionally draining childhood Veblen was victim to failed to provide a true response of any kind from me (and I am an extremely sympathetic person!). Veblen herself is named after an economist, Thorstein Veblen, and so it is only natural that the book, and Veblen herself, show a passion for this. Now, perhaps this would have appealed to someone who has perhaps studied economy or has a greater grasp and understanding of people such as Thorstein Veblen. For myself however, it really did go over my head, and I have no shame in admitting that I did not fully understand all of the contexts. This was a crucial factor in my overall decision regarding this book. I have read books before that involve topics that I might not have had a full understanding of at the time of reading, such as Mary Barton and the Charterist movement. Yet what makes these books so effective and such a sharp contrast to this one is that it does not matter if you do not understand. They are still just as enjoyable without the additionally historical, social or intellectual contexts, and any fuller understanding of the topics they centre upon are often just an additional bonus to an already accomplished book. I really did not feel this way about The Portable Veblen. I felt it relied too heavily on themes that would not necessarily be easily accessible or understandable to a wide cross section of readers, and that as such the book felt rather lost on me.

It is clear from the book that Elizabeth McKenzie is an extremely intellectual writer, and one of the books highlights for me was the way in which she places focus on the medical research industry, and its often commercialised hypocrisy.  Whilst not necessarily a hugely likeable character, reflection has shown that Paul was actually the character I enjoyed the most. McKenzie uses Paul as a conduit to provide insight into the ways in which medical advancements and research must not only fight through many hurdles to become safe for society, but she more interestingly uses him to ultimately reveal the way that science, like many other sectors, is still a money making business, and not everyone involved in the process is there for morally right reasons. Paul may be attempting to create a better world for victims of brain trauma, yet the industry in which he must work cares, rather ironically, little for this.

I found Veblen as a character annoying, and rather childish, and despite trying I just could not form any bond with her. Yet despite this, the book has had massive success, with many hailing McKenzie for her quirky, comedic story. Do you agree with this statement? Or, like myself, were you left feeling rather deflated and bored?

Publisher: Fourth Estate (Inprint of HarperCollins)

Rating: 2*




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