Novelist Elizabeth McKenzie’s Family Drama
Thirty-year-old Veblen (named after Thorstein Bunde Veblen, a late 19th century Norwegian American economist who was often critical of capitalism) is a newly engaged northern California dreamer. Unfortunately, soon-to-be wedded bliss is not all that poor Veblen is dealing with.
In The Portable Veblen, Elizabeth McKenzie’s second novel, the spunky protagonist wrangles with her parents’ baggage in a valiant effort to embrace her own “freelance self.” Through much of this quirky novel, Veblen and her fiancé, Paul, a successful neurologist and the child of hippie parents, struggle to break free from their tumultuous upbringings and dysfunctional families. For Veblen, this means developing healthy adult relationships with her hypochondriac mother and institutionalized Vietnam War veteran father, something that requires constant vigilance and can easily overwhelm her. In Paul’s case, an aversion to his communal upbringing leads him to embrace dangerous professional ambitions as a medical researcher, which puts him on a collision course with America’s military-industrial complex. Luckily for Veblen, a neighborhood squirrel begins to reassure her.
The Portable Veblen, long-listed for the National Book Award for Fiction, is a complicated, pragmatic, modern love story filled with nuanced characters, unexpected plot twists and, yes, a talking squirrel. McKenzie uses clever satire and highly poetic language to share her insightful perceptions on contemporary relationships and the universal struggles of growing up.
Elizabeth McKenzie, whose writings have appeared in The New Yorker and The Atlantic, will visit Boswell Book Co. (2559 N. Downer Ave.) at 7 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 23.