JANUARY 10, 2016
ELIZABETH MCKENZIE’S fiction is a study in the strange and cerebral. I first discovered her when I picked up The New Yorker in the waiting room before a mammogram: how can you not open a story called “Savage Breast” when someone is about to examine your own? No matter the circumstances, I would have been hooked. McKenzie’s stories veer into the fantastic yet somehow keep the reader feeling close. McKenzie’s previous books, Stop That Girl and MacGregor Tells the World, feature unusual families and weird motives all along a network of inventive plotlines. Lurking around each next corner might be a slightly mad grandmother, a tragic heiress, a laid-back California entrepreneur, or some other eccentric. The protagonist of McKenzie’s newest novel, The Portable Veblen, is a young woman named Veblen Amundsen-Hovda, after Thorstein Bunde Veblen, the social critic who coined the term “conspicuous consumption.” The real Veblen, prolific during the early 20th century, developed an alternative critique to Marxism. He focused on how social institutions promoted ostentation, thus leeching meaning and moral value from productivity. McKenzie’s Veblen is a concerned observer of all that her namesake most railed against: waste, vested interests, junk, and counterfeit. She leads a low-profile life that mirrors those views — she is content with her tiny house, she is okay with having a temp job, she has quirky unpaid passions like doing translation work for the Norwegian diaspora project, she mourns the loss of old Palo Alto, wondering why what others call “rundown” she views as “real.” However, she has fallen in love and faces one of the biggest exercises in conspicuous consumption any young person can: the planning of a wedding. Her fiancé, Paul, doesn’t have much against consumption — his parents were good hippies but bad parents, whose anti-capitalism has come to seem silly to him. Veblen also has the ongoing responsibility for keeping happy her hypochondriac, controlling mother and wondering if her institutionalized father will even be fit to attend the event. No wonder she starts to believe that the plucky gray squirrel following her around can understand more than it lets on. I interviewed McKenzie over email about this new novel and its insightful adventure through capitalism, family, love, war, and wedding-planning.
JENNIFER BANNAN: From where does your interest in Thorsten Bunde Veblen’s “conspicuous consumption” come? Are there acts of gentle resistance against conspicuous consumption that were inspiring to you as you developed this quality in Veblen?
ELIZABETH MCKENZIE: When I first found Veblen, it was like discovering a witty relative who cast the things I’d grown up with in a more persuasive light. In my family, we weren’t allowed to waste anything. When an item of clothing was too small, my mother picked it apart like we were making the most of an animal carcass. She would remove the zipper and buttons and cut up the fabric for future use. We rarely if ever went shopping in conventional retail outlets, though we lived in Los Angeles, where my mother could rail against the neighbors who were out buying things like normal people. It was easy to call upon all that while developing Veblen’s attitudes.
Yet, your protagonist’s views are complicated by the fact that she is in conflict with her mother, who can be narcissistic, needy, and manipulative. These traits grow stronger as Veblen makes plans to marry into a more privileged, materialistic realm. I wondered if the mother fears that access to means might destroy her connection to Veblen?
Yes, definitely. I think this mother would likely be threatened by any connection Veblen would make to anybody else. She has been relying on Veblen to be her avatar in the world, but your point about the lure of the material world is a good one. Veblen’s mother hurls remarks about Veblen’s engagement ring and big fancy houses to sting her, but I think she’s just afraid of losing her daughter.
Veblen’s fiancé, Paul, is a brilliant neuroscientist who has created a lifesaving device for soldiers in combat. He notices with mild irritation the marketing people who push “news” in their newsletters and create new categories for the trade show, such as “pre-wounded” and “post-wounded.” He embraces materialism anyway, in part as rebellion against his hippie upbringing. Were the hippies too much all at once?
They certainly were for Paul. At one point in my own childhood, my mother went away to run rapids in the Grand Canyon on dories with a bunch of oarsmen and wilderness aficionados that she bonded with surprisingly quickly. When she returned from her trip, we barely recognized her. She informed us that some of the oarsmen and other people she had met on the river were coming for a visit, and a few days later, vans pulled up and out poured these very carefree people that resemble some of the friends of Paul’s parents. They camped out in our backyard for what seemed like weeks. In the novel, Paul’s problems with his family go beyond their hippiness — they have more to do with his disabled brother and his sense of unfair treatment in comparison.
I am interested in how sometimes people can revert to childhood patterns when around their families, no matter how dignified they act the rest of the time. It can be so surprising and painful to see some friendly happy person you think you know well bumping up against those sore spots and unraveling.
Both Veblen and Paul have a sense of loyalty to their families, even as they feel oppressed by them. Which do you think is more likely to make family a rich theme for literary fiction: this mixture of love/enslavement or the fact that family situates us in time, connecting us to past and future at once?
Both of those are true for me. One thing I wanted to portray in the novel was that long, lingering twilight after you’ve left your childhood home, when you’re still shaking off your role in that world and aren’t quite sure who you are going to become once away from it.
We have to talk about the squirrel: it plays such a huge role in the novel. Paul tries to evict the squirrel from the attic and Veblen tries to befriend it. Veblen has the habit of biting herself, which she never seems to find particularly disturbing. Is there something we are losing of our animal selves?
These characters are probably finding their animal selves rather than losing them. Some of the characters I have been writing about lately are attracted to animals for their empathetic warmth in the absence of language. The language they speak to each other is one both humans and animals seem to understand.
Veblen makes the realization that Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin is a revolutionary of sorts. The squirrel in The Portable Veblen shares some characteristics with Nutkin. Was Squirrel Nutkin an important story to you as a child, or did you discover it after you became a mother?
I thought Nutkin was a troublemaker when I read the book as a child, and I just wanted him to shape up and fall in line with the other squirrels. He made me very nervous! Reading him as an adult, I started to see that Nutkin was stirring things up like a revolutionary. I’m not sure Beatrix Potter meant that, but that is how it seems to me now.
Paul says about Veblen’s friendship with the squirrel, “This squirrel isn’t a character in a storybook. Real animals don’t wear shawls and top hats and write poetry. They rape each other and eat their own young.” The fact that Paul ignores his ties to the industrial complex frustrates Veblen. Why?
Like many scientists, Paul has taken a hardened stance toward certain mammals, because he has been in the position of having to experiment on them. He has been trained to see them as commodities, and maybe he has even demonized them a bit to distance himself from his work. Veblen and Paul struggle ideologically, but I think that struggle mirrors one we might have with ourselves; as citizens, we end up participating in things of which we don’t approve, so how do we live with that? Is there the equivalent of the “carbon buyback” for this, and what are the ways we can compensate for our own collateral damages?
Paul wants to see his medical device help soldiers on the battlefield, but he becomes increasingly roped into the tangle of war, corporatized medicine, and marketing. There is no carbon buyback option for him, and yet the writing around his situation is quite hilarious. Is humor one of our only escape routes?
It definitely helps. I’m also thinking of the use of contrast in art and photography — humor sets off tragic subjects in literature in a similar way. Making something look ridiculous is a good way to express scorn. It is more of a confrontation than an escape route. The satirization of Paul’s activities is rooted in disgust, anger, and a sense of the grotesqueness of it all. If it is humor, it is the kind that still hurts.
Here is an example of the type of rant that appears frequently in the book: “Phenomena in the natural world no longer inspired reverence and reflection, but translated instead into excuses for shopping sprees. […] Marriage was preceded by the longest shopping list of all, second only to the one after the birth of offspring.” At another point, Veblen makes the observation that “Art is despair with dignity … if only she were an artist!” What are you saying about the writer’s relationship to this kind of ruminating?
Veblen isn’t a writer or an artist, but she is philosophical and she does have a creative outlet — her translations. I have been doing some translations lately with a partner, which has been really gratifying and creative. Thorstein Veblen himself spent over 20 years on a translation of an Icelandic saga.
What are you translating these days, and what can you say about how translation differs from other forms of writing?
I have been working on some Italian translations with Michela Martini. We are working on an early novel by Rossana Campo, In principio erano le mutande, and a philosophical discourse on the Asian tsunami of 2004 by Emanuele Trevi, L’onda del porto. I’m really enjoying that the raw material is already there, so the process involves an intense focus on language and syntax and temporarily pulls me out of my own writing habits.
How long have you been reading Thorstein Veblen? Are there any “Veblens” writing today who are also catching your attention?
I have been reading Veblen for a long time, and John Dos Passos wrote a chapter on Veblen in The Big Money, part of U.S.A. More recent critics that I’ve been reading include Slavoj Žižek, David Brooks, Robert Reich, Gregg Easterbrook, Thomas Piketty, and Carl Elliott, who writes about bioethics. Suddenly, everything you see becomes relevant to this line of thinking — it is inescapable!