Sometimes you read a novel and find yourself taken to your knees by an element conveyed by the author with startling astuteness. This isn't usually something with which just any reader can identify, but usually it's the opposite - an element so unusual or uncommon that the reader is startled that anyone else could understand or empathize, let alone so incredibly well.
Elizabeth McKenzie's new novel is odd and magical and funny. I suppose there's even some magical realism, of sorts, in here. Veblen is a young woman newly engaged to a scientist on the verge of making his wildest career dreams. She's distracted, though, by a handsome squirrel who scurries around in the attic of her beloved little home and visits her at the window when Paul leaves for work.
There are other complications, primarily in the form of relatives on both sides. Though the word is never used, to my memory, Veblen's mother is a narcissist.
I am convinced that McKenzie must have, or must at some point had, a narcissist like Veblen's mother in her life. Her both overt and subtle controlling behaviors just cannot be derived simply from researching the condition, in my opinion. Although The Portable Veblen has fantastical elements in it, anyone who hasn't had a person like Veblen's mother, Melanie, in their lives may well read her emotional manipulations as over the top exaggerations, meant for humor and flamboyancy. But if you've had experiences with a person like this, Melanie's actions ring distinctively true and deeply disturbing, as well does the sort of personality and self-doubt created in the daughter of such a woman.
"From bracing them in defense since girlhood, her guts were robust, her tolerance for adversity high. By clearly emphasizing all that was lacking in others, by mapping and raising to an art form the catalog of their flaws, Veblen's mother had inversely punched out a template for an ideal human being, and it was the unspoken assumption that Veblen would aspire to this template with all her might."
"'If you don't like corn, it means I'll probably stop making it. We won't go on hunts for the best corn stands in summer, driving all over until we find them. You won't be motivated to shuck it for me. The sound of me gnawing on it will annoy you, so I'll stop having it. It'll gradually become a thing of my past, phased out for good.' Veblen was almost ready to cry, and she had reason. Anything and everything her mother disliked had been phased out of her life for good."
"Why did her mother always have to tell her that her other relatives didn't care about her? She'd often told Veblen her grandmother didn't love her because she didn't love Melanie, her own daughter, and if she couldn't love her own child she couldn't love anybody. And that her grandfather Woodrow only liked her because she was a young woman and wasn't fat and ugly."
"Had her mother made her a ragged-edged shard without a fit?"
In part because he doesn't understand her deep affection for and fascination with squirrels, Veblen worries that her fiancé, Paul, may not be right for her, or may well be trying to change her from who she feels she truly is. Eventually, though, she comes to suspect that who she believes she is was already established by someone else, and may not be her true nature at all.. or at least not in large part.
I read an advanced copy of this novel, provided to me by Penguin Random House. Please be aware that the quotes I provided above are from said copy and could change before publication (which is January 19th, 2016 in the United States). I found some of the writing to be a bit uneven and sometimes a bit confusing, which I'm chalking up to quite possibly also being a product of a somewhat rough galley, but even if it were in the finished novel, it wouldn't be enough to dissuade my recommending it. I was also startled, while reading, to stumble across photographs in the novel. Some of them were great, like the portraits of real historical figures, but some of them were odd and seemed somewhat pointless. I'm gathering that this could also be a product of a not-quite polished final version, or that they may be better conveyed in the ultimate publication. In any case, it was an interesting additional media element.
This was my first novel by McKenzie. I found the weirdness quite enjoyable, the insightful behavior by the characters both disturbing and convincing.