The Portable Veblen opens with a couple walking beside a creek in Palo Alto, California. He is “branded head to toe”: J Crew, Patagonia, Vans. She wears “items of indeterminate make, possibly hand-cobbled”. He is about to propose and she is about to be unmoved by a diamond “so large it would be a pill to avoid for those who easily gag”. She’ll say yes anyway but the reader senses the engagement of Veblen Amundsen-Hovda and Paul Vreeland won’t be entirely harmonious.
Veblen’s mother named her after Thorstein Veblen, the late-19th-century Norwegian-American economist who coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption”. Like her mother, Veblen reveres her namesake and his critiques of the status-seeking that is built into modern capitalism. Her relationship with Paul, a Stanford medical researcher, started when they bonded over the marketing literature for the tools he uses (“Diamond-coated blade has no teeth and will not cut fingers! . . . Wet blade eliminates bone dust!”). The medical industry, they agreed, runs on advertising and false promises like any other. But Paul, unlike Veblen, is susceptible to these promises. He is the son of well-meaning but neglectful hippie parents and his ambition is to build a life that looks nothing like theirs: rich and conventional, with well-adjusted and successful children. When Hutmacher, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, offers to buy the product that Paul is developing and to sell it to the US military, he can’t say no. It will save the government money and improve the lives of injured troops: how could that be wrong?
While Paul is being wooed by Hutmacher, Veblen is talking to squirrels. She began to do so as a child, in order to escape the demands of her manipulative, misanthropic, hypochondriac mother. Now the habit is back, along with a particular squirrel that appears to be following her around California, trying to send her a message about her future. A heroine who recites rhymes to woodland creatures runs the risk of being unendurably twee – and The Portable Veblen is not for those who find whimsy hard to stomach. But Veblen’s love of nature spills over into the narrative, unexpectedly providing one of the novel’s greatest pleasures: precise, beautiful descriptions of the Californian landscape. There is “necky red cyclamen” growing outside the veterans’ hospital where Paul’s product will be trialled. In Veblen’s childhood home, “green canes” of blackberry vines rose “straight like spindles before gravity caused them to arc”.
The Portable Veblen sets itself up in the tradition of the systems novel: those big, post-1960s works by writers such as Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace which aim to show the workings of capitalist society and how its ideologies shape the lives and minds of individuals. This was Thorstein Veblen’s project, too, and he looms large in the novel. The female Veblen keeps a framed portrait of the economist in her house, visits the cabin where he used to live and frets over the way his character has been misunderstood. The process of testing Paul’s product and putting it on the market shows companies valuing money and expedience over human well-being. This callousness extends into care homes and hospitals, government and the military – into the lives of those who believe themselves untouched by it.
But as the novel continues, the workings of the pharmaceutical industry become less and less important except as a way of driving the plot. Yes, Hutmacher is corrupt, but McKenzie suggests that capitalism isn’t really responsible for a woman’s anxiety, or a man’s desire for success. The problems of individuals have personal causes: a selfish mother or a love affair gone wrong. The Portable Veblen turns out to be less like Foster Wallace and more like Jonathan Franzen, whose investigations into pharmaceutical companies and mass surveillance also collapse into family-centred narratives.
McKenzie is a surprising and wryly funny writer, as sharp-eyed about destructive relationships as she is about plants and animals. Even so, it is frustrating that, for all her novel’s seeming interest in the effects of the economy on the individual, the pay-off is that difficult childhoods are difficult to get over, that opposites attract but take a little while to get used to one another and that the solution to relationship problems is compromise and communication.
The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie is published by Fourth Estate (448pp, £12.99)
This article appears in the 10 Feb 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle