For all its charm, bounce, radiant eccentrics and diverting episodes involving drug companies and squirrels, that is what The Portable Veblen is about: shaking the demented ghosts of our youth so that we can bind with clean spirits to someone in our adulthood.
[The Portable Veblen] inverts the traditional rom-com formula, opening where many end — with the couple's engagement ... McKenzie's delightfully frisky novel touts a simpler, more natural environment — a world in which 'underdogs and outsiders' like Thorstein Veblen, her appealing cast of oddballs and nonconformists, and even bushy-tailed rodents feel 'free to be themselves.'
McKenzie has crafted a story that beneath an entertaining, clever surface, is deep and wise and complicated ... With so light a touch and yet more serious and beautiful and relevant than many a weightier novel, The Portable Veblen has the feel of an instant, unlikely classic.
Whatever literary category it falls into, The Portable Veblen winds up being totally endearing because it is so completely and originally itself ... McKenzie doesn't write cute. Instead, this is a quirky novel that respects itself and so doesn't try too hard to win a reader over. McKenzie imbues her characters with such psychological acuity that they, as well as the off-kilter world they inhabit, feel fully formed and authentic.
Set in Northern California, the novel is a winning satire of contemporary mores, the sort typically found in the rarefied worlds of the coastal elite. McKenzie has written a funny, deeply critical book with the heart of a cynic and the texture of a soufflé. If The Portable Veblen has a flaw, it is that its caricatures are so on the nose as to make the reader hope to flee the human race.
McKenzie has a pitch-perfect ear for a certain kind of California kookery, and even when she veers twee (your tolerance for anthropomorphized rodents may be tested), it’s hard not to be charmed by Veblen’s whimsy.
The Portable Veblen crosses the line between charming and annoying so early and so often that it could easily end up consigned to the Did Not Finish pile. But that would be a mistake. The novel is full of vibrant passages that practically leap off the page and twirl around the room.
the novel is consistently concerned with people with messed-up heads. But McKenzie successfully plays up the humor ... If there are a few too many scenes of parents and kids rolling their eyes at each other, the extra bulk serves the point that escaping past your past isn't easy.
If this novel proves anything, it is that despair makes the best art (or, at least, entertainment) when it is undignified: when it is raw and weird and hilarious. Some of the most squirmingly pleasurable time in this book is spent with Veblen’s mother, Melanie C Duffy, a comic creation worthy of Dickens.
For readers who prefer literary fiction liberally dosed with absurdity and insight, exclamation points and philosophy, foibles and traumas, Elizabeth McKenzie’s novel The Portable Veblen is a wild ride that you will not want to miss.
At 427 pages, the novel probably could have been trimmed. But as it builds to its satisfying conclusion it’s apparent that all the stories and plot twists are essential to the work. The Portable Veblen asks important questions about how to leave our childhoods behind and step into new families, while balancing the ones we were given, and how to embrace the imperfection of living.
McKenzie has an appeallingly light, playful touch here. You don’t have time to worry about whether the squirrel-obsessed Veblen is mentally ill or merely eccentric; the story whooshes along, stopping for moments of clever satire, character detail, and the occasional odd photograph.