The Portable Veblen has all the hallmarks of a book that I would ordinarily devour: quirky characters, a deep social critique, and moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity. But in this case, there is just too much of everything – to much quirk, too many critiques, and too much humor that only sometimes lands on the right note.
|One quirky thing is the placement of little photos in the text|
The story involves a couple in Palo Alto, California that recently became engaged. But the reader soon learns that not all is not perfect between the two main characters, as exemplified by the fact that squirrels can be heard in the walls of the house they share. And while the husband-to-be abhors squirrels and tries to trap and kill them, the bride-to-be loves them. In fact, she talks to them, and they talk back.
The fact that one of the main characters in this book is a talking squirrel might represent one of the novel’s themes: the struggle between nature and progress. But there so many other themes: the struggle between tradition and innovation; the seduction of fame and money; the uneasy and often blurry lines between science for the social good and science as commodity; and my favorite -- families are hard. If you asked me to tell you what this book is “about,” I’d have trouble giving a clear answer, because the author takes on so much here.
|Another quirky photo|
The main character’s name is Veblen, named after the economist Thorstein Veblen, who is famous for discussing “conspicuous consumption” and for critiquing the idea of production for profit. Veblen the character is kind of a free-spirit and loves the “old” Palo Alto. Her fiancée, Paul, is more representative of the “new” Palo Alto and is trying to market the medical device he created. As the characters try to resolve their differences, the reader gets to meet their family members, many of whom have different versions of mental illness. Why, exactly, they are all struggling with mental illness is kind of unclear, and I’m not fully sure if this is part of a critique or if it is supposed to be funny (it isn’t). Perhaps it has something to do with what the meaning of insane is – is that another theme? Gah!
Ultimately, I finished this book feeling confused and somewhat dissatisfied. However, I get the sense that this author will have a bright future. There is something so smart about this book, even as I came away feeling like I just ate an entire pie when a single slice would have sufficed.
Here’s an interesting Q&A with McKenzie.