The heroine of the novel is Veblen Amundsen-Hovda, a not so typical,’gig’ economy participant, making a living by combining assignments as an office assistant in Neurology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, translating for the Norwegian Diaspora Project in Oslo, and writing about her namesake Thorstein Veblen. (Yes, that witty critic of capitalism who invented the term ‘conspicuous consumption’.)
Or as the author describes her “independent behaviorist, experienced cheerer-upper, and freelance self, who was having a delayed love affair with the world due to an isolated childhood and various interferences since.”
When we meet Veblen she has just accepted a marriage proposal from Paul Vreeland scientist, and inventor of the Pneumatic Turbo Skull Punch.
Did I mention the squirrels? One in particular, who appears at her window just after her engagement, seeming to ask: “How well do you know yourself, and all the choices you could make?”
In her review of the novel, NPR’s Heller McAlpin captured the theme that continues to resonate long after the reader arrives at Appendix G (in Norwegian), “this is ultimately a morality tale about the values by which we choose to live.”
If you have spent time in academia you will appreciate the absurdity of naming your child for the subject of your unfinished doctoral dissertation. You will also recognize the financial pressures of ‘technology transfer’, and ‘monetizing research’ that drive Paul’s decision to work for Big Pharma.
What if you invented something that could save lives? Wouldn’t you choose a firm that promised unlimited resources to expedite the process to market?
It’s easy to understand Paul’s choice. But in the world of bright shiny incentives he misses the point of who he will become as part of an unscrupulous conglomerate.
Fortunately for our couple and squirrel(s), good triumphs over evil in a series of memorable scenes that prove ‘what goes around, comes around’.
In ‘The Portable Veblen’, author McKenzie utilizes humor to narrate this story of choices, change, and consequences. If you’re looking for the perfect read for the recent grad, or are working through conflicting values at work, spend a few hours with Veblen, Paul and a supporting cast of frisky, philosophical squirrels.