Monday, April 4, 2016

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE PORTABLE VEBLEN” by Elizabeth McKenzie (Fourth Estate / Harper-Collins, $NZ42:99)

When you marry, in some sense you also marry your spouse’s family.
This can be unnerving. There are so many new people to get to know. There are so many people with whom you would not really wish to associate if you had a free choice. You fell in love with this person – not with this person’s relatives. But at some time you have to bite the bullet. In marrying, acceptance of your beloved’s backstory and family is part of the deal, even if it makes for some painful adjustments.
I’m overstating the case a little here. [Memo to self: Must remember not to piss off wife’s family.] But this premise is what Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen is built on.
As some overseas reviewers have already pointed out, The Portable Veblen begins at the point where many love stories end. Veblen Amundsen-Hovda and Paul Vreeland meet, fall in love and get engaged. Usually at this point come the wedding bells and the happy fade-out. In The Portable Veblen however, there follow months of each agonising over whether they have made the right decision. Her family intimidates him. He’s embarrassed by his own family when she meets them. She’s not sure if his values are ones she can live with. They have quite different career paths. He’s a research scientist on the cusp of hitting the big time. She is a departmental secretary at a university. She is filled with self-doubts. She characterises herself thus:
He didn’t realise that she hadn’t graduated from college. That embarrassed her, and was probably something he should find out soon. It simply hadn’t come up. Since when you marry you are offering yourself as a commodity, maybe it was time to clear up details of her product description. Healthy thirty-year-old woman with no college degree. Caveat emptor.” (p.14)
Veblen’s family background includes a certifiably insane father from whom Veblen’s mother Melanie has separated. Melanie is now married to a harmless but somewhat wimpy chap called Linus. Melanie herself is a monster, accurately described by Paul as “a narcissist, a hypochondriac, a borderline personality, probably schizoid” (p.151). Horrible Melanie expects always to be the centre of attention, claims to suffer from a host of non-existent ailments, and endlessly subjects Veblen to emotional blackmail.
The values of Veblen’s family are “alternative” ones, and at first the reader may think that this novel will be the amusing contrast of a straight, career-focused guy and a rather fey woman. And then we meet Paul’s family and find they’re just as dysfunctional and screwed-up as Veblen’s. There’s Paul’s mentally-limited brother Justin, an overgrown baby who likes masturbating in other people’s houses and who is over-protected by Paul’s parents. Justin’s very existence is a threat to the peaceful conduct of Paul’s and Veblen’s wedding day. There are Paul’s parents themselves, who made Paul’s adolescent years hell with their advanced hippiedom and irresponsibility against which Paul had to rebel. In a typical vignette Paul recalls from teenage years that:
The inevitable pungent smell of burning pot invaded his room first, followed by the happier aroma of his mother’s cooking, which drew him out at last, a huge vat of lentil stew and whole-wheat flatbread and a salad full of nasturtium flowers, but the BO of the group and the way they all sat together in a pile, shirtless, raspberry nippled and muddy toed, made him return to his room as soon as he’d filled his plate, and he ate alone on the edge of his bed designing moats and drawbridges to surround the house he’d have someday to keep them all out.” (p.267)
If Paul has gone ultra-straight and rational, it’s partly because of his parents. This aspect of the novel puts it alongside such retrospective rebukes to hippie upbringing as Marina Lewycka’s Various Pets Alive and Dead and, at least in part, Bianca Zander’s The Predictions (which I reviewed for Landfall-Review-on-Line in February 2016).
And yet “alternative” lifestyles are not the worst thing that can happen in the world. The Portable Veblen is as interested in bringing Veblen’s and Paul’s values into conflict as it is in making farcical capital out of their families. As you might guess from her odd name, Veblen has been named by her mother after the ironic Norwegian-American social critic Thorstein Veblen, who wrote his classic Theory of the Leisure Class in the late nineteenth century, ridiculing crass capitalism and its materialism, and the pretensions of the wealthy. The novel’s Veblen follows his creed (the fact that she also quotes William James and John Dewey suggests her intellectual formation stopped with her parents’ bookshelves). When she considers that, marrying Paul, they might have to find a house, she immediately thinks this way:
Veblen espoused the Veblerian opinion that wanting a big house filled with cheaply produced versions of so-called luxury items was the greatest soul-sucking trap of modern civilisation, and that those copycat mansions away from the heart and soul of a city had ensnared their over-mortgaged owners – yes, trapped and relocated then like pests.” (p.74)
She is always ready with Veblerian phrases such as “anticipatory daydream” (describing advertising), “patriotic emotionalism”, “affluenza”, “commodity fetishism” and of course the famous “conspicuous consumption”. She is a child of nature, wanting the simple life, hating corporate competitiveness, revering the plain shack (made out of old chicken coops) in which Thorstein Veblen hung out in the woods.
Now how can all this be reconciled with Paul, who is busy developing a device to relieve battlefield head wounds? (A sort of hole-punch for the skull.) Here is Paul toiling away in his laboratory, his vivisection of small animals vividly, and sometimes gruesomely, described. And here is Veblen communing with a squirrel she imagines to be following her around and conversing with her. Here is Paul almost being seduced by a predatory corporate woman, Cloris Hutmacher, who wants to get the rights to the gizmo he is developing; and then using damaged war veterans as live guinea pigs to test his skull punch. And here is Veblen trying to protect squirrels from the traps Paul sets for them when he thinks they will attack the electrical wiring of their home. Yes, attitudes toward squirrels become the yardstick for measuring the intellectual distance between Veblen and Paul, and squirrels are the novel’s dominant imagery. (A squirrel features on both the cover designs used for this novel in different territories.)
The tension between Veblen’s and Paul’s world-views becomes more intense as Paul gets sucked deeper into the military-industrial complex. It is not my purpose to provide “spoilers” and tell you where all this is going, but I can say that there is a particularly hideous scene in Chapter 13 when Paul discovers that Cloris Hutmacher and her corporate buddies have begun to market Paul’s gizmo before it’s been properly tested or received FDA approval.
It’s fair to say, then, that the 422 pages of The Portable Veblen are almost as much about the commercialisation of science and the deviance of business corporations as they are about the compatibility of two individuals.
Time for a little evaluation. Elizabeth McKenzie (frequent contributor to the New Yorker et al.) is a witty woman who can set up a good comic scene. Veblen’s awful mother Melanie is a grotesque comic triumph (reminds me of the likes of Sarah Gamp in Dickens, as Melanie is at once funny and repugnant). Elizabeth McKenzie can spin a yarn and enjoys, once she has established her basic plot premise, elaborating at length on the backstories of both Veblen and Paul, especially the awkwardnesses of their upbringing. There is a strong emotional contrast between them. Veblen’s experience has made her forbearing and determined to see the best in people even when they are driving her nuts. (Her indulgence in mood-enhancing drugs probably helps.) But Paul’s experience has made him suspicious, angry and determined to succeed in his own terms. As a male reviewer, am I allowed to say that this woman’s novel comes close to the gender stereotypes of competitive marketplace male and peace-making domestic female? True, Veblen has moments of being an assertive woman, but the pacifying / belligerent contrast is what the author dramatizes most.
I really enjoyed moments of psychological acuteness, as when Veblen reflects on a lexical shift:
‘Okay’, Paul said, ‘Sleep well. Love you.’
Her throat blocked. ‘Love you too.’
She shuddered and coughed. She had said the dreaded ‘Love you’ instead of ‘I love you’, and feared it marked a terrible turning point. To drop the pronoun was surely more than a time saver. She had a hunch that when a couple stopped saying ‘I love you’ and said the more neutered, quippy ‘Love you’ instead, something had gone awry, leading to a quick succession of deterioration scenarios and other horrors of intimacy that need not be part of every union – she would not let them.” (p.218).
On the other hand, the squirrel motif can cross over into the twee, especially when Veblen cogitates on Beatrix Potter’s “Squirrel Nutkin”; and Paul’s professional life veers into thriller-like melodrama as we head for the conclusion.
But what a liar I’d be if I didn’t admit to enjoying much of it – the farcical bustle, the awfulness of the two families, and the slow circling of Veblen and Paul. A fun read.

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