The Portable Veblen

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Read 25/07/2016-28/07/2016

Rating: 4 stars

I’ve been waiting to read this book since it was shortlisted for the Bailey’s prize. The review on The Reader’s Room gave me pause, but when it came back into my local library a couple of weeks ago, I brought it home. I was reassured by the review on Words and Leaves. It didn’t disappoint.

There was something breathless about the writing that I really enjoyed. Everything felt hyperreal, exaggerated, technicolour, day-glo. It put me in mind of the way Effie Trinket speaks in The Hunger Games. There was an episodic quality to the writing, as well, like a sit-com.

I liked Veblen. She made me think of a woman who was on the same MA course as my best friend. Intelligent and eccentric, she also had conversations with squirrels, although hers consisted of having a special voice in which to address them, rather than believing the squirrels were talking to her. I liked Veblen because she doesn’t conform to the conventional. She has her own thoughts about how the world works. She isn’t a kook. She’s merely open to possibilities.

I didn’t really like Paul. He doesn’t listen because he’s too busy being right. Or so he likes to think. He says he loves Veblen for who she is, how different to him she is, but spends most of his time thinking about how he needs to change her so that she conforms to his idea of the conventional. I wasn’t that interested in his medical research story. It felt like wallpaper. It’s a shame because usually I enjoy stories about scientific discovery.

The book is about Veblen and Paul getting married, and about Paul’s career and Veblen’s lack of career, and about the dysfunctional parents who have screwed up both of them. Veblen has doubts about marriage. Possibly specific to Paul, possibly just about marriage.

Was this the stuff married life would be made of, two people making way for the confounding spectacle of the other, bewildered and slightly afraid?

This is in response to Paul’s hatred of vermin (squirrels) taking priority over Veblen’s love for them, symbolised by him rushing out to buy a trap with which he aims to clear Veblen’s attic of their furry form. Is this symbolic? Does he also want to clear Veblen’s metaphorical attic of furry rodents? It happens early in the book, but it seems to be a clue to Paul’s attitude – wrestle the things you don’t like into submission and then kill them.

Veblen’s best friend Albertine is a Jungian. She pops in and out as needed and brings more marriage doubt to Veblen’s party.

…marriage is a continuous inevitable confrontation that can be resolved only through death.

I’m married. I like being married. But I also understand both these quotes about marriage. I’d go so far as to say that all relationships, familial, friendship or romantic, are dances around the confounding qualities of the other that will never be resolved. And so we go with it, knowing the relationship would be duller if we agreed on everything or reached a perfect understanding.

Veblen reminded me, too, of Marian in Atwood’s The Edible Woman. Something isn’t right but she feels trammelled into going along with the thing that is expected of her, despite the warnings she gets from her gut instinct and her advisory squirrel.

There are things about Veblen that used to be true of me. Not just that I had a portable typewriter as a child and loved to type things out. I had a portable typewriter as an adult, too, to take to university because laptops didn’t exist then. I don’t think I typed a single essay on it, but I did type a lot of other things. Veblen and I share certain characteristics. I have what a friend once described as a rich inner life. Or used to, anyway. I used to daydream a lot. Now it’s only occasional and, like Veblen, usually when I’m stressed. I’m a bit of a romantic at heart, although the cynicism I’ve developed over the years does its best to cover up for me. My favourite fairy tale as a child was Rapunzel. Especially the bit where the prince is blinded by thorns and only Rapunzel’s tears can heal him. My mum used to tell me that I would shudderingly sigh at that part and plead, “Oh, read it again, Mummy, please.” My favourite Austen novels are Pride and Prejudice and Emma because the love stories are so fraught with frustration but eventually, both because of and despite who they are as people, Lizzie and Emma get their Darcy and Knightley. My favourite pop songs are love songs, especially the ones about failed or unrequited love. I love films like One Fine Day and Sleepless in Seattle. Deep down, there are still elements of Veblen in me, but I fear that real life has turned me into more of a Paul. So keen on getting it all right. So keen on not getting burned.

This is one of the things that made me like Veblen:

At thirty she still favored baggy oversized boy’s clothes, a habit as hard to grow out of as imaginary friends.

My imaginary friends were legion. I think I’ve mentioned before that my dad had depression. It became all consuming when my mum told him she was unexpectedly pregnant with me. He was 40 and took to his bed. One of my earliest memories is of dad in bed with the curtains closed and mum creeping us both out of the house, off on some adventure up a hill, in a forest, or round a stately home. I must have been 3 or 4, it was before I went to school. I had friends, but not many. Having a dad who stayed in bed most of the day made bringing friends home difficult. Even when he became well enough to go back to work, he didn’t really like the noise of children in the house, so I played out a lot or played in my room. Plus I am quite a classic introvert, so I preferred to spend a lot of time on my own as a child, escaping into books or imagining a different reality. Usually involving Wonder Woman or Battle of the Planets. What I’m saying is, I understand where Veblen is coming from.

Veblen’s relationship with each of her parents was interesting. Her mother is controlling, manipulative, insecure, hypochondriac and irrational. Her father is institutionalised. Veblen has spent most of her life managing them. At one point she finds herself wondering if she’s attracted to burdens because that’s what she knows. I’ve wondered that myself, from time to time. The part where Veblen visits her father in his care home, and her coping mechanisms for the bleakness of that reality rang true. Visiting my mum now that her dementia has properly taken hold is like visiting a person I don’t really know. I found that part of the story moving.

Paul’s family life was less interesting, perhaps because he comes across as a bit of a twat for most of the book, perhaps because his parents and brother feel more caricatured than Veblen’s family. Veblen’s parents are caricatures, too, but her response to them makes them seem more human.

The satirical elements to the novel weren’t the best satire. Mostly it was made up of exaggerated situations that acted as vehicles for the author to make some point about the environment, capitalism, consumption, Big Pharma, whatever. It felt like a distraction from the exploration of relationships and flawed human interaction.

The story of Veblen’s self discovery carried the book and I found that I was eager to read on, looking forward to the end of the working day so that I could return to Veblen’s world. It made me wish I could take a day off to curl up with the book and drink it all in with no interruptions. It entertained me thoroughly, so I’ll forgive it for not saying anything life changing. Sometimes, entertainment is all you need from a book.

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4 thoughts on “The Portable Veblen

  1. I loved this book as well – such a surprising discovery but one that I have had a hard time convincing others to read (it’s the talking squirrels that put them off…).

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    1. I’ve gone with “it’s about how life can be hard work, and people can be tricky, but it’s underpinned by the wisdom of squirrels.” If people can’t accept that squirrels know where it’s at, then I reassess my opinion of them. They can find their own way. I love how the squirrel took total control of Paul’s destiny at the end. Paul needed that squirrel intervention.

      Liked by 1 person

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