I realise that my title description, ‘the squirreliest novel I ever read’ is not entirely helpful. It is a bit of the cover quotation by Ursula Le Guin and she did follow it up with ‘I enjoyed it completely,’ but I personally was more taken with the cute adjective. How many books can be described as even a little bit ‘squirrelly’? Aside from Beatrix Potter’s classic, not many that I can name.
I suppose the real question for a reviewer is if there’s anything besides the squirreliness that makes ‘The Portable Veblen’ stand out. Put simply, the answer is yes. After all, this novel has a main character named after an economist, and a love interest who is insidiously drawn into the world of massive pharmaceutical companies working with the military. Either of these themes would support an issue-based novel, and that’s before we get into extremely troubling family relationships our central couple must overcome if they are to succeed in making a life together. The novel skips, squirrel-like (sorry) from issue to issue, as neither character really wants to face up their reality or decisions. This ambivalence is set out beautifully on the first page: ‘The skin of the year was crackling, coming apart, the sewers sweeping it away beneath the roads. Soon would come a change in the light, the brief, benign winter of northern California tilting to warmth and flowers. All signs that were usually cause for relief, yet Veblen felt troubled, as if rushing towards a disaster. But was it of a personal nature, or worldwide? She wanted to stop time.’
The two main characters, Veblen and Paul, will both need to overcome this wish to ‘stop time’ if they are to make a life together. The reason this is so hard is that both have major issues with their parents. Melanie, Veblen’s Narcissist mother is a hypnotically repellent character and you’d forgive nearly anything in anyone who had to live with her, except possibly Veblen’s unremitting understanding care and attention. Paul’s problems are less convincing (he can’t forgive his parents for the attention they give his brain-damaged older brother), but he spends more time moaning about them so things end up pretty equal.
Helping and hindering the couple on their journeys to maturity are Paul’s work colleagues, most significantly the evil Cloris Hutmacher who is a ruthless representative of Hutmacher pharmaceuticals. She’s tall, blond, highly seductive and would be the worst mother in the world if she didn’t have such stiff competition from Melanie. Personalities aside, you also feel that Paul probably should have read more about institutional economics before he was so tempted by the conspicuous consumption embodied by his new employers. It’s almost impossible to see how he and the unambitious Veblen can share the same values (he also puts traps in the roof because he can’t stand the noise of the squirrels).
Despite the cute-animal window dressing, and beneath the economic and political plot strands, I think ‘The Portable Veblen’ is a book about parents and children, with the blame for life’s ills squarely placed on the former. Characters are more or less organised into their generational groups (fathers, bad, mothers, very very bad) and left to destroy their enemies. For much of the novel I had Larkin’s ‘This Be the Verse’ going round my head: ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad / they may not mean to but they do.’ Like many readers, I do plan to go away and research Thorstein Veblen. I may pay more attention in future to news stories about abuses of the American health system. First though, I need to phone my parents to thank them for not being at all like any of the characters in this novel.