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Author: Elizabeth McKenzie
Publisher: Fourth Estate
The Portable Veblen is one of the more curious novels that I’ve read of late, and one that I went into with utterly no idea of what to expect. It’s an anomaly, covering a hodgepodge of topics such as: squirrels, mental illness, the medical industry, marriage, and post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans.
The setting is Palo Alto, California, part of the tech frontier known as Silicon Valley. At the heart of the novel is Veblen Amundsen-Hovda, a nature-loving and anti-materialistic hospital administrator (named of the Norwegian-American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen), and her fiancé Paul Vreeland, a neurologist. Paul is developing a medical device for use in battle zones that will help to decrease brain trauma in soldiers, and is running as far as he can from his hippie parents and his mentally-handicapped brother, who he believes is out to ruin his life. Veblen, meanwhile, is distrustful of anything to do with consumerism, stressed from a lifetime of dealing with her needy and hypochondriac mother, and believes that a squirrel in her neighbourhood is communicating with her. When Paul secures a deal for his device with a large pharmaceutical company, their relationship is thrown into disarray.
If that sounds like a lot to process, you wouldn’t be wrong. There is a lot going on in this book, which has been described as a “Silicon Valley novel.” McKenzie is commenting on the clash between the old world and the new, played out in Paul’s desire for wealth and notoriety, and Veblen’s emotional crisis caused by trying to align her simpler values with those of her fiancé. Veblen idolises her namesake, and there are repeated references throughout the story to the anti-capitalist ideas of Thorstein Veblen. Although educational, this does slow down the pace of the novel, but there were enough sparks of wit and poignancy to keep me reading. Ultimately, this is a surprising and ambitious story about 21st-century dilemmas.