I have been reading a book called The Portable Veblen. I bought it when I was called to Federal jury duty and all the information given said no electronic gadgets would be allowed in the courthouse, including mobile phones. Oy, that would have been bad. But I escaped quite neatly through a series of phone calls where a recorded message told me I was not selected. I think this may be attributable to my term of service being in Holy Week and Easter Week, or one or the other weeks of Spring Break. Lucky me. I did serve on a jury 15 years ago but relating that would be a whole other blog. Meanwhile, back to the Portable Veblen.
Thorstein Veblen, if you do not know who he was, wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class, among other things, and coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ during the 1880s in the US, also known as the Gilded Age, a time of industrial change, robber barons, and … well … conspicuous consumption. If you can let go of the language, The Theory of the Leisure Class is as pertinent today as it was when Veblen wrote it.
But that, again is a bit beside the point. The main character of this comic novel is named Veblen, yes, after Thorstein. It is a novel with large scale medical fraud, veterans with traumatic brain injury, veterans in comas, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and profiteers, flawed families, a romance, and a prophetic squirrel.
I’m not sure where to begin. Veblen and Paul meet in a lab of a major university shortly before he leaves to go work for a pharmaceutical company. They go down the road of romance and are soon living mostly together at her tiny restored cottage with a squirrel living in the attic. This book details the fears and adjustments everyone makes when introducing each other’s families (with that maddening acceptance of the weirdness that one never expects) and adjusting to all the ways that those families shaped the beloved.
Some of the jacket blurbs mentioned dysfunctional families, which is really a bit overused. Veblen and Paul’s families are not much different than many of my friends’ families. I mean, this isn’t Rebecca, for heaven’s sake; no mad people locked in attics (well, there is Veblen’s father, but he doesn’t seem much more crazy than her mother, who is not in care). Have you ever told someone something awful about your family that had been bothering you and heard, “Oh yeah, my (sister, brother, mother, father) has been (mooching money, doing drugs, off his/her meds, refusing to speak to x)” so that you realize oh holy smokes, this is the human condition?
But then there’s the squirrel. It talks to Veblen. Telepathically, I think. Eventually, it talks to Paul as well. And he is not someone you would expect to receive communications from a squirrel. Veblen knows a lot about great squirrel migrations across North America. We all have our quirks, and that is one of the points here, I think: the process by which we accept the other, the beloved, and embrace him or her entirely.
This is a flawed book, but some of its insights about romance and human relations are stunning and subtle. It also has a lot to say about status, industry, and ethics. I can see myself in a year seeing a new book and thinking “Elizabeth McKenzie. She wrote The Portable Veblen. Hmm. I should try this one too.” Maybe you should as well. Try this one, that is.