Thursday, February 23, 2017

She wasn't sure how to live

She used to think falling in love was alchemy, that animals had weddings, that coal was a gemstone, that mountains were hollow, that trees had hidden eyes!
The Portable Veblen, by Elizabeth McKenzie, was something of a disappointment.

I kept bumping up against this novel at the end of the year, and there's a squirrel on the cover, which I took for a sign. Why a squirrel would be a sign I won't explain here, but I bought a copy for my sister, and I read a library copy, hoping the squirrel had some secret wisdom to impart, to me, to us. Alas not.

The Portable Veblen is, in fact, a rom-com — not really my thing.

The New York Times sums up the novel as follows:
At 30, Veblen still surfs from one unchallenging administrative job to the next, conserving her real energy for her translation work for something called the Norwegian Diaspora Project in Oslo. She takes antidepressants every morning (Vivactil, citalopram). She never finished college. She prefers to read, bike and compile trivia about squirrels and become a secret expert on the life and ideas of the Norwegian-American economist Thorstein Veblen, for whom she was named.

For all its charm, bounce, radiant eccentrics and diverting episodes involving drug companies and squirrels, that is what "The Portable Veblen" is about: shaking the demented ghosts of our youth so that we can bind with clean spirits to someone in our adulthood.

Or, as Veblen puts it: "A wedding is the time and place to recognize the full clutch of the past in the negotiation of a shared future. Try devoting a few pages to that, Brides magazine!"

I won't give away how the book ends. But "The Portable Veblen" is a novel of such festive originality that it would be a shame to miss.
The Guardian called it "raw, weird and hilarious." According to the LA Times, it's "deep, wise and eccentric."

I don't see it — the originality, the weirdness. Because she talks to squirrels? I've read much stranger, more original things than this.
She relaxed and watched a family at a table nearby, the parents feeding the children, wiping their mouths, cleaning their hands, a father and mother and two children, the unit of them unsettling to her, though she couldn't say why. She looked away, at an older man eating by himself, and that unsettled her too. She wasn't sure how to live.
It feels like a missed opportunity to talk about the other Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class and conspicuous consumption. This book is blah, blah, shitty childhood, blah, blah, first-world problems, blah, do I really love him, blah, do the right thing. It's all very sweet and light and nice.

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