Reading Elizabeth McKenzie’s winning new novel, The Portable Veblen, feels a bit like jumping into a Wes Anderson movie. In the opening lines, one can almost hear the Andersonesque voice-over and see the camera zoom in for the set-up shot: “Huddled together on the last block of Tasso Street, in a California town known as Palo Alto, is a pair of humble bungalows, each one aplot in lilies. And in one lived a woman in the slim green spring of her life, and her name was Veblen Amundsen-Hovda.”
Like Wes Anderson, McKenzie has a bent toward the surreal, the madcap, and the bizarre. Her heroine Veblen (named for Thorstein Veblen, the anti-materialist economist and coiner of the phrase ‘conspicuous consumption’), loves typing, translating Norwegian texts, and talking to squirrels. (The squirrels, for their part, have a lot to say back, and quite a good vocabulary.)
Also like Anderson, McKenzie creates characters who live in a sphere set apart from contemporary culture. Amidst the rapid currents of Palo Alto’s gentrification, Veblen defends her ramshackle cottage. In a town of ambitious tech titans, Veblen prefers her temp job at the hospital. When Veblen’s kind, neurosurgeon boyfriend Paul pops the question with giant engagement ring, Veblen is filled with dread.
There are good reasons for Veblen’s caution; good reasons for her to be reading Marriage: Dead or Alive in bedeach night. Veblen’s mother, a glamorous but disheveled hypochondriac (cue Tilda Swinton!) had a disastrous marriage to Veblen’s father, an institutionalized manic, leaving Veblen to navigate the choppy waters of family life on her own. For his part, Paul’s parents were peace-loving, commune-living nudists who cared deeply about everything except their son’s upbringing. The crux of the book asks: do two people with no experience in normal family life and luggage racks full of family baggage have any business marrying each other? And can they be happy if they do?
McKenzie, who is in her second marriage, says she was able to transfer her own feelings about marriage—the beauty and the skepticism of it—into the novel. “Before I got married the first time, I had very romantic ideas about it,” she says. Following her divorce, however, she became more honest, more realistic. “I transported a lot of that process to the book.”
McKenzie began work on The Portable Veblen in 2007, and a version appeared in The Atlantic in 2011. While the plot evolved over time, Veblen’s character remained sturdy, as did the location of Palo Alto. “I think there’s a real nostalgia from me about old Palo Alto and how it used to be a humble place,” says McKenzie, who now lives in Santa Cruz. “My father grew up there. During the Depression my grandfather tried to sell parcels of land there and could not sell them. I grew up in L.A., which seemed very commercial and status-conscious. Palo Alto felt like the opposite, and there are still pockets of the town that are like that.”
Of all the “old guard” in Palo Alto, the oldest are certainly the squirrels and McKenzie—like Veblen—is charmed by their quixotic presence. “I like the fact that they’re wild animals that come into our world,” McKenzie says. “They keep their wildness and yet they tolerate us. They’re some of the oldest animals on earth—450 million years old. They’ve just made adjustments to survive, and I think that’s kind of an enchantment.”
People, like squirrels, make adjustments to get on in life, and watching Veblen and Paul dart, dash, and scamper to keep their relationship afloat is its own kind of enchantment. Early praise of McKenzie’s book from lofty quarters (think Karen Joy Fowler, Abraham Verghese, and a starred Kirkus review) has heightened anticipation for this wholly original work with a seriously original title. Adventurous readers would do well to follow the advice of the brown, bushy-tailed squirrel on the last page: “Seeforyourselfforyourselfforyourself.”
Kirk Reed Forrester is the Books Editor for Virtuoso Life, a contributing editor at flower magazine and a features writer for Kirkus Reviews. She lives in Birmingham, Alabama.