Wild and Free

This bold new novel about a woman’s relationship with a squirrel blurs the line between eccentricity and madness.

Squirrel love.
The book’s heroine is fond of squirrels, including the one that comes to live in her attic.

Photo illustration by Slate. Image by dossyl/Thinkstock.

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.

In titling her novel The Portable Veblen, McKenzie runs the risk that booksellers might shelve it in the wrong section. It sounds like it should be a selection of the writings of Thorstein Veblen, the early-20th-century American sociologist who scorned consumerism and invented the term “conspicuous consumption.” In fact, the title refers to Veblen Amundsen-Hovda, a thirtysomething woman who lives in Palo Alto, California. But the connection with Thorstein doesn’t take long to emerge: Veblen was named after the writer and has come to idolize him, even hanging a picture of him in her house.

Veblen strives to live the kind of life her namesake would approve of. “I love Thorstein Veblen because even after an exhaustive survey of his life, he has never let me down,” Veblen writes in a passage set to look like it was produced on her typewriter. “Because he bucked the establishment not only when he was youthful and idealistic, but all his life; because he was so free…” In this spirit, though she resides in the red-hot center of Silicon Valley, Veblen rents a modest old house on the fringes of town, cares nothing for money or status, and is never happier than when communing with trees, streams, and forest creatures.

In particular, she is fond of squirrels, including the one that comes to live in her attic. Not so charmed by the visitor is her fiancé, Paul Vreeland, a neurologist whom she meets at the hospital where she works as an office temp. It doesn’t take long for the reader to understand that the couple’s opposed feelings about the squirrel—he wants to trap or kill it, she wants to make friends—bespeak a deeper opposition in personality and values that might very well ruin their relationship. For all the drama in The Portable Veblen—and the plot includes mental illness, simulated combat, and high-level government corruption—the real suspense has to do with the fate of Veblen and Paul’s love. “You seem to admire strange and difficult lives more than upright, successful ones,” he tells her, and the question that interests McKenzie is whether it is possible to have both kinds of life.

Author Elizabeth McKenzie.
Author Elizabeth McKenzie.

Photo by Linda Ozaki

To make it work, Paul and Veblen will have to overcome not just different attitudes toward success and wealth, but the legacies of two of the most memorably awful families in recent fiction. Veblen was raised by her mother, Melanie, who emerges in McKenzie’s cleverly drawn portrait as a master manipulator. (“It’s the ring of a kept woman,” she spits at her daughter when she first sees her engagement ring.) Full of self-pity, brittle arrogance, and hypochondria—on her first meeting with Paul, she presents him with a typewritten catalog of her symptoms—Melanie is a grotesque. She’s entertaining to read about, but you wouldn’t want to meet her, much less have her as your mother.

Veblen’s tendency to fantasize—McKenzie tells us at perhaps excessive length about the imaginary squirrel-kingdom she invented as a child—is an understandable defense mechanism against such a mother. So is her fear of conflict, her need to smooth things over, her low self-esteem. (She has a tendency to bite her own arm at moments of stress.) The result is a character who is hard to like—harder, perhaps, than McKenzie intends, depending on your tolerance for whimsy.

McKenzie’s prose is complicit in this whimsy: She is fond of odd turns of phrase (“a pair of humble bungalows, each one aplot in lilies” and over-the-top similes (“[it] was a feather in his cap, a long pheasant feather, such as those found on the felted hats of Tyrolean yodelers”). The photographs, too, 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.

For if Veblen suffered from a controlling, intolerant mother, Paul is still angry about the pot-smoking, hippie-commune atmosphere of his own childhood. Things were made worse by a brother, Justin, who is mentally impaired and whose needs dominated the family. All the chaos led Paul to long for bourgeois order and prosperity, which he seems on the verge of attaining. His invention—a device for army medics to perform battlefield brain surgery, which could save many lives—has just been bought by Hutmacher, a medical conglomerate. Paul is placed in charge of the clinical trial, which involves dealing with severely wounded veterans and their deludedly optimistic family members.

At first, it seems like McKenzie has divided the book along traditional lines of genre and gender. Paul’s story focuses on war and business, and exposes the workings of the “real world”—the defense department, big corporations, the media, all of which are shown to thrive on day-to-day compromise and corruption. Veblen, by contrast, is focused on nature, family, and childhood; her concerns have to do with emotion, memory, and relationships. McKenzie writes with equal conviction about both worlds: Scenes set at a defense procurement convention or inside a combat simulator feel as fully imagined as those set in a kitchen or a backyard.

But the real interest of the novel comes from the way McKenzie allows the two realms to infiltrate and comment upon one another. The private, modest Veblen turns out to be the one with a political and philosophical worldview, learned from Thorstein Veblen, about how people ought to live. Paul, on the other hand, is driven to blind and dangerous ambition by unresolved issues in his family and childhood. It’s not until he comes to grips with his past that he is able to act ethically in the world—and the climax of the plot has a perilous ethical test in store. The Portable Veblen brings together its disparate themes and worlds with confidence and dexterity, making the standard well-made novel seem as timid as—well, as a squirrel.

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie, Penguin Press.

See all the pieces in this month’s Slate Book Review.