The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie
You may not immediately recognise the name of the economist, sociologist and critic of modernity, Thorstein Veblen, but you will recognise some of the concepts that he introduced into the twentieth century lexicon, perhaps most notably the notion of ‘conspicuous consumption’. Veblen Amundsen-Hovda was named after the sociologist by her mother and, like Thorstein himself, Veblen is troubled by consumer culture and the many trappings of middle-class life. She worries often about how she might live her life differently and feels a sense of disconnection from the capitalist machine. Unsurprisingly, she is also fascinated by her namesake’s life and work. We meet Veblen as she embarks on a relationship with Paul, a talented medical researcher who has invented a device that he hopes will help increase the chance of survival for soldiers who suffer brain injuries in the field.
So far, so serious, but this book is actually an unexpected breath of fresh air – a funny, witty novel that offered this reader a welcome change of pace after a year of sombre (albeit wonderful) reading in 2015. That said, this is no featherweight read, since author Elizabeth McKenzie explores a range of serious topics including medical ethics, intellectual property, translation, commodification, the military-industrial-complex, mental health and family dynamics, but edifies the reader on these matters by stealth rather than with a heavy hand. Along the way, we also manage to learn quite a lot about Thorstein Veblen, and I must admit to wanting to dust off my old copy of his 1899 work, The Theory of the Leisure Class, to reacquaint myself with his writing which is, at times and in spite of its own seriousness, quite witty.
Oh, and did I mention that squirrels might talk in this book? I have no space left to explain, but don’t worry, it works, and it works really well. A truly original, delightful and very entertaining book.
Alison Huber is Readings’ Head Book Buyer.