The winner of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction has recently been announced. From a short list of six books the winner was The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney, known from her former blog as the Sweary Lady. We haven’t got to that yet but have had dealings with two others on the shortlist, The Improbability of Love, by Hannah Rothschild, and The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie. The other three on the shortlist were The Green Road by Anne Enright, Ruby by Cynthia Bond and A Little Life by Hanya Yanaghihara.
We were drawn to The Improbability of Love, which was the joint winner (with The Mark and the Void referred to here recently) of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Literature. And a very acceptable Prize it is too: a jeroboam of Champagne Bollinger Special Cuvée, 52 volumes of the Everyman Wodehouse edition, and a Gloucester Old Spots pig named after the winning novel. (We’d love our own pig.)
A comedic novel set in the art world appealed, but The Improbability of Love was so padded with detail, so overwritten, the heroine was such a wimp, that when the Watteau painting that is the subject of all the struggle and carry on started reflecting to itself in an arch voice, it was no longer possible to continue.
The Portable Veblen, which because of the heavy presence of squirrels had perhaps the possibility being too cutesy, is more original and with a strong point to make, or perhaps it would be better to say that it shows two ways of viewing the world, in deep conflict.
Our heroine is Veblen Amundsen-Hovda, named for Thorstein Veblen, a late 19th Century author of, among other books, Theory of the Leisure Class, who coined the term, ‘conspicuous consumption.’ If you don’t know his work it can be understood by seeing it as the complete opposite of the American Dream.
Veblen has a demanding mother who has her own needs firmly at the top of her list. She also has an absent and difficult if not dangerous father, and has learned to live her life making sure all around her are happy, even her local squirrels. Her own happiness is well down on the list. All the more delightful that she has met and is in mutual love with Dr Paul Vreeland, handsome and ambitious, and loving her for all the right reasons.
‘You know that thing you do when you run out of the room after you’ve turned off the light?’
‘You’ve seen me?’
‘It’s very cute.’
‘Oh!’ To be cute when one hasn’t tried is nice.
‘Remember when you showed me the shadow of the humming-bird on the curtain?’
‘I loved that.’
‘I know, it was right in the middle, like it was framing itself,’
‘And that thing you do, when telemarketers call and you sort of retch like you’re being strangled and hang up?’
‘You like that?’
And it’s clear Paul loves everything about her.
But no sooner is this established and he has proposed marriage, than he produces a giant diamond engagement ring. That is not at all to Veblen’s taste, and then he objects to the noise of the squirrels in her roof and buys a ‘humane’ trap. Veblen is confused, but she loves Paul, and she has her mother’s distressed phone calls to cope with, which always induce guilt and confusion.
It becomes clear they both have things in their lives that will take some time to be revealed. Veblen is ashamed she doesn’t have a college degree; Paul has his disabled brother Justin, the bane of his life, whom he prefers not to think about.
But it is Paul’s career that promises to be the biggest obstacle between them. Paul is ambitious, he wants to make good and to have some of that ‘conspicuous consumption’ for himself. He is a neurologist who has invented a device to be used in conflict zones to prevent Post Traumatic Stress. If a combatant has a head injury, a trained medic using Paul’s device can zap a little hole into the injured person’s brain and instantly reduce the pressure. Paul is still working on his idea but is seduced away from his university by the glamorous Cloris Hutmacher, representing her giant family firm, which combines Big Pharma hand in hand with Department of Defence.
When he is at his workplace in the Hutmacher site there is some stomach-churning detail. For example MUP’s are explained to him as ‘multiple use privileges’:
‘We have thirty-four cadavers in stock. So if we get MUP’s and use both sides of the skull, that will put us at sixty-eight procedures, and hopefully by that time we should have a full inventory.’
Every gruesome procedure has its own jargon or acronym.
McKenzie makes a convincing case for a close association between Big Pharma, Media, Advertising and War. Paul is overwhelmed by this environment, but also tempted by all the goodies on offer. Veblen doesn’t want to have their wedding at Cloris Hutmacher’s mansion, she doesn’t want a boat, she likes the shabby simplicity of her rented house, yet something in her is deeply drawn to Paul. This is the dilemma, two quite different lifestyles and world- views in collision.
Elizabeth McKenzie’s book is great fun. There are hilarious scenes with the two families who have their own hellish aspects, (the hypochondriac mother deserves a post to herself), and the tension is maintained between Veblen and Paul until quite close to the end. No spoilers here, but one squirrel (or perhaps a squirrel) travels with Veblen and enables her to find the strength to strike out for herself. Thoroughly enjoyable.