Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Portable Veblen

Title:  The Portable Veblen
Author:  Elizabeth Mckenzie
Publication Information:  Penguin Press. 2016. 448 pages.
ISBN:  1594206856 / 978-1594206856

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Huddled together on the last block of Tasso Street, in a California town known as Palo Alto, was a pair of humble bungalows, each one aplot in lilies.

Favorite Quote:  "Positive spin makes the world go around."

Paul and Veblen are getting married. At least, they are engaged to be married. Will they marry? Are they a good match?

Paul is a scientist working on a device to help those with traumatic brain injuries. His work and ambition lead him to a job with high powered Department of Defense contractors. Veblen is more of a free spirit, living in her ramshackle house and translating texts for the Norwegian Diaspora Project.

Paul is the son of hippie parents. Veblen's mother is a hypochondriac suffering a myriad of illnesses; her stepfather revolves around her mother; and her father is institutionalized due to complications of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Paul is older brother to Justin, who is an adult with special needs. The two have, at best, a difficult relationship. Veblen is an only child.

Veblen loves and talks to squirrels as if human. Paul cannot stand them.

Both bring the baggage of the their past to this relationship, as we all do in real life. Both seem to be so different from each other and so ill-matched. But are they? And, at the end of it, is it the differences that matter or is it the things that draw them together?

Primarily, this book is a character study of two disparate people with dysfunctional families and their ability or inability to form a strong relationship. Somewhat of a plot exists with Paul's research, but beyond that, nothing much really happens in this story.

Admittedly, parts are funny as stories about quirky people and dysfunctional families often are. Mostly though, the book is just slow-moving and odd. This book has parts  - for example, the squirrels, the appendices to the book, and the somewhat tangentially related pictures scattered throughout - that I just don't get. I don't relate to the characters or the story nor do I find them particularly engaging. Odd, weird, and quirky works in many cases, but in this case, the book seems to work at being quirky, which, for me, means that quirkiness loses its charm.

I look to the title for some help deciphering if the book may have a hidden meaning. The main character is named Veblen, after economist Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929). His main work focused on the idea of conspicuous consumption, the idea of acquiring material things as an expression of wealth and power. His work and theories themselves also don't seem to have any relationship to the events of the book. Veblen idealizes this work, and the fact that her mother chose to give her this name. However, by the end, even that goes in a direction different than she anticipates.

This book reminds of a connect-the-dots image. It has lots of dots: the significance of Veblen's name, Veblen and Paul, Veblen and the squirrels, Paul and his research, Paul and his new employer, Paul and his parents, Paul and his brother, Veblen and her mother, Veblen and her father, and many more. For me,  unfortunately, the image never really comes together. The lines that connect all these dots into a cohesive story seem missing. Maybe, the squirrels can help. Then again, maybe not.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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