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Why Write a Novel About Befriending a Squirrel? A Q&A with Elizabeth McKenzie

In the author's smart, funny, and bizarre new novel "The Portable Veblen," a woman sublimates her anxieties about her mother, her fiancé, and capitalism in an unlikely bond with a cute woodland creature.
Image courtesy of Penguin Press

In literature, the word quirky is often used as a euphemism: for trying too hard; for a certain kind of wackily dressed, manic pixie dream girl-esque character; for, some have argued, sexism. But Elizabeth McKenzie's work is an exception: Her fiction is singular, bizarre, and successful, integrating what teens might call "random" elements into thorough intellectual examination, philosophy, and good, old-fashioned plot.


Her newest novel, The Portable Veblen, is a great example. The book stars Veblen Amundsen-Hovda, a ponderous but unambitious 30-year-old woman whose needy mother named her after the turn-of-the-century sociologist Thorstein Bunde Veblen. The latter Veblen was a critic of capitalism who coined the term "conspicuous consumption," and his idea foregrounds many of the former Veblen's struggles in the book, though the relationship between the two is never heavy-handed or obvious. (Rants and extended philosophical riffs appear throughout The Portable Veblen, another example of McKenzie deftly employing a strategy many struggle with.) Instead, McKenzie explores contemporary political issues—and, in particular, conspicuous consumption—through the lens of Veblen's shaky relationships with her controlling mother and her combatively rational fiancé, Paul, whose career as a successful neuroscientist serves as a contrast and challenge to Veblen's temp jobs and hobbyist tendencies. The "quirky" description comes from the fact that she translates Norwegian for fun, and from the point at which those shaky relationships ultimately lead Veblen to, sort of, befriend a squirrel.

We talked to McKenzie about her writing process, being called "original," and whether animals are a viable escape from ideology.

Elizabeth McKenzie. Photo by Linda Ozaki courtesy of Penguin Press

BROADLY: What drew you to the idea of conspicuous consumption? Have you struggled with these questions as Veblen did?
Elizabeth McKenzie: Yes, I've struggled personally with those issues about consumption. My mother used to make fun of people for buying things, as if people who went shopping were criminals. I remember once heartlessly doing a photo essay on consumers, lurking outside of a Kmart and taking pictures of innocent people coming out with their carts, trying to frame them as miserable pawns mindlessly hording goods. My mother was also proud of how little money we lived on, and how far she could make a small income go by making our clothes and furniture and so on. At the same time, I longed for these white go-go boots other girls had at school and cried when my mother refused to get them for me.


The book often highlights how larger political issues affect and challenge people's relationships. Do you think it's possible to escape one's situation?
Well, I've noticed that if you start telling someone a story and you forget to say right away when it happened or where, the listener always interrupts and asks. It's like the time frame and location are the magnetic north of our comprehension of everything we hear. So even if a story takes place in a fantastical world, the reader still wants an orientation to the big picture, and that includes the prevailing political atmosphere. Even so, the characters may not be the kinds of characters who'd be thinking about politics or ideology at all.

I'm really interested in the tension between Veblen's relationship to the squirrel and Paul's disdain for it. I read an interview in which you said, "Some of the characters I have been writing about lately are attracted to animals for their empathetic warmth in the absence of language." I'm wondering if you see this attraction to animals as a kind of coping mechanism, or a sort of escape valve from the complications of humanity.
I like this subject! Because whether a relationship with an animal is a metaphor for human relationships or not, it's going to involve both understanding and a lack of it. I like what the artist Marcel Duchamp said, that "Language is just no damn good—I use it because I have to, but I don't put any trust in it. We never understand each other." This feels very true to me, that people are often talking at cross-purposes. Veblen in my novel is a translator, both of Norwegian and of the behavior of the bewildering people she's grown up around. So this habit of translating and interpretation means that an absence of language isn't such a big deal for her, even with a squirrel.

I read another interview with you, in the New Yorker (which took place when you were "tidying up" what I assume is this novel), and you said that you wanted to write some stories for a while. What's the appeal of the shorter form to you now? How long did this novel take?
I'm trying to write stories quickly now, and that's very appealing. The novel took me longer than I expected—almost seven years, counting starting over from scratch once and some time away from it while I worked on [editing the anthology] My Postwar Life while living in Japan.

What was your process like? Did you plan?
I'm not sure I would recommend the course I took! The novel developed very slowly at times, one step forward, two steps back. I wrote lots of scenes and pages that never made it in. I didn't have a plan and didn't make character sketches. But at one point I had a big piece of paper to track the threads.

What did you read while writing the book?
Wow, that would be a long list since it was such a long stretch of time. Recently I've read a couple of novels I would love to be influenced by: The Facades by Eric Lundgren, and All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders.

Many reviews have mentioned that The Portable Veblen is unlike pretty much anything the reviewers have ever read. Is "originality" or doing something unique important to you?
It was really nice that they said that! What's more important, maybe, than trying to be "original" is trying to be authentic—that is, if you can somehow locate your actual feelings and observations and put aside the "mass of suggested feeling and imitated conduct" that William James talks about when describing the obstacles to real and original experience. This is a sub-theme in my novel, something that Veblen's mother has strong feelings about. On the other hand, guileless authenticity might not always be the best narrative choice—we have all kinds of personas and complicated ways of hiding ourselves, and that's really interesting, too.