Elizabeth McKenzie weaves wildly divergent stories and themes through her story of dysfunctional Silicon Valley love in ‘The Portable Veblen
Elizabeth McKenzie’s new novel, The Portable Veblen, defies one of the first laws of bookselling: easy categorization. Instead, it comes together like a strangely compelling tapestry woven from threads that should clash, but somehow don’t.
The title refers to Veblen Amundsen-Hovda, the thirtysomething namesake of famed economist Thorstein Veblen, who coined the term “conspicuous consumption.”
Joyfully eccentric and in agreement with much of his scorn for “the leisure class,” Amundsen-Hovda lives in a ramshackle bungalow on the fringe of Palo Alto, works temp jobs in Silicon Valley, translates obscure texts from Norwegian for fun, and feels a connection to the squirrel living in her attic. She’s engaged to Paul Vreeland, an ambitious neurologist who has invented a device for treating traumatic brain injury that interests both the pharmaceutical and defense industries. He thinks the squirrel has got to go.
The two of them embody the Bay Area’s yin and yang: Veblen embracing the natural beauty and diverse path that speaks to our progressive tendencies, while Paul craves the innovative yet corruptible course that operates like a high-speed rail. As they stumble toward the altar after only three months together, they’re also attempting to break away from the grasp of their difficult families. Veblen’s mother is a narcissistic hypochondriac, and Paul’s parents are passive-aggressive hippies who have pushed his needs aside to care for his intellectually disabled brother. The question is, in all the turmoil, will this fledgling couple find their way back to each other?
McKenzie currently edits the Catamaran and Chicago Quarterly literary magazines. This is her third novel, and it’s getting rave reviews. She lives in Santa Cruz and we talked recently about her work.
There are so many wide-ranging elements in this novel. How did you bring them together?
Elizabeth McKenzie: It took years. I just allowed myself to follow different threads of interest. I didn’t know if they were going to meld or not, but I thought that would be my challenge, to make it work. I figured if they’re all in me, they must fit together somehow.
What’s with the squirrels?
They’re kind of emblematic of what’s left of the natural world that we come into contact with, and we don’t really control them even though they’ve made a lot of sacrifices to adapt to us. It’s amazing how polarizing they are. People either love them or hate them. For Veblen, the squirrel is an emotional investment, like an imaginary friend.
The military plays a surprising role in this book. What sparked your interest?
I didn’t feel like I’d been in close contact with people in the military growing up, yet my own father, stepfather and grandfather had all been in WWII. Because everyone in their generation was involved, they didn’t think much about what it meant. It’s not like we all have someone in the military now. I started to realize there were things that happened to my father, who served in the Navy, that accounted for how the rest of his life unfolded. He was fired upon, injured and shell-shocked, and though it wasn’t talked about as I grew up, his behavior was there, and it had a strong effect on me. I realized that veterans’ issues had touched my life in a way I hadn’t thought about before, and I developed a kind of obsession with them as I wrote this book, reading war memoirs and following the news about V.A. scandals. I became fascinated with current issues in the military, like clinical trials and marketing. There’s a lot going on there that you don’t see in everyday life.
I like your exploration of parenthood.
It’s a preoccupation of mine, the effect of one’s parents. It’s something I keep writing about, almost without thinking about it.
What are you working on now?
After such a long period writing a novel, I’m happily writing short stories. It feels great to finish something quickly.
What advice do you have for aspiring novelists?
It’s hard, but don’t hurry the thing you’re working on. Let it accrue all the depth it can.
Elizabeth McKenzie will read from her new book at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 20 at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Free.
LOCAL GEM Santa Cruz novelist Elizabeth McKenzie will read from her new, critically acclaimed book ‘The Portable Veblen’ at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 20 at Bookshop Santa Cruz.