The Portable Veblen might sound like a collected works of Thorstein Veblen, the Norwegian economist who decried materialism and coined the term “conspicuous consumption,” but in reality Elizabeth McKenzie’s new novel is a probing account of a romantic mismatch (among other pleasantly meandering subtopics). The Veblen of the title is a young woman who was named after the famous economist and feels keenly the influence of his ideas. She makes a simple living as a temp, pursues her interests (translating, typing, compiling trivia), and contentedly resides in a ramshackle cottage with a squirrel-infested attic. Until, that is, her fiancé, a status-conscious doctor named Paul, sets out to trap the squirrels and find Veblen a new home. Dramatic irony dictates that the reader—if not the lovers—sees through these squirrel-colored glasses: the relationship is doomed. So what does a long-dead Norwegian economist have to do with this pair of characters—and what’s with the squirrels?
Thorstein Veblen published his monograph, The Theory of the Leisure Class, in 1899, and as Stephen Edgell points out in his article, “Veblen’s Theory of Conspicuous Consumption After 100 Years,” it has been in print ever since, staying relevant amid vast socioeconomic changes. Thorstein Veblen’s critique of the wastefulness and pointlessness of the competition for status is an idea deeply embedded in the character Veblen. When Paul first starts talking about finding a nice, new home to live in, and Veblen starts meeting his friends and planning their wedding, we are told “Veblen espoused the Veblenian opinion that wanting a big house full of cheaply produced versions of so-called luxury items was the greatest soul-sucking trap of modern civilization.”
The connections run even deeper: Edgell emphasizes Veblen’s “thinly veiled preference for the values and institutions of workmanship which he considered fundamental to human survival and therefore in the collective interests of the community, rather than for predatory values and institutions associated with property and patriotism which he considered to be parasitic and therefore detrimental to the common good.” Similarly, early in their relationship, the fictional Veblen tells Paul, “Thorstein Veblen would say people hate squirrels because that’s the only way to motivate expenditures on them—such as buying traps and guns. It’s the same with stirring up patriotic emotionalism, because it justifies expenditures for defense.” Paul responds the way most of us would, with a huh? But her musings on the complications of patriotism and defense spending prove to be prophetic: Paul works to develop a medical device for use in military combat, literally engaging in the transactions of patriotism and spending, and unearthing moral ambiguities galore.
It takes a special kind of novelist to make readers care deeply about the lasting contributions of a long-gone eccentric economist, but The Portable Veblen manages to do just that. In another essay titled, “Rescuing Veblen from Valhalla: Deconstruction and Reconstruction of a Sociological Legend,” Edgell writes, “A dose of Veblenian skepticism is essential to intellectual health.” Living in the midst of her strained relationship, living in today’s status-conscious and consumerist society, it’s no wonder our fictional Veblen finds a kindred spirit not in Paul but in a wild creature living completely outside of the struggle to keep up appearances, a being focused instead on the pure struggle for survival; in other words, a squirrel.