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Second thoughts

Elizabeth McKenzie's comical love story shows a changed Palo Alto

What do a mismatched pair of soon-to-be-married lovers, an anti-materialistic Stanford economist, and a charismatic squirrel have in common? The answer lies in Elizabeth McKenzie's new comic novel, "The Portable Veblen."

Set in present-day Palo Alto and environs, "The Portable Veblen" focuses on a thirty-ish South Bay couple grappling with the implications of their seemingly hasty engagement. Named for the iconoclastic social critic Thorstein Veblen, Veblen Amundsen-Hovda is described as "an independent behaviorist, experienced cheerer-upper and freelance self." She works as a temp at Stanford University School of Medicine, doesn't mind sharing the attic of her Tasso Street bungalow with a noisy squirrel and adores her fiance, Paul Vreeland.

Paul is a brilliant neuroscientist conducting a clinical trial at a veterans hospital. He has developed the Pneumatic Turbo Skull Punch, a medical device designed to save lives on the battlefield -- and possibly make him rich and famous.

"The Portable Veblen" begins where most romances end, with a proposal and a big diamond. Reached by phone, McKenzie, who resides in Santa Cruz, explained the impetus for the book's set-up.

"I wanted to explore what happens when you've made a commitment to somebody and you start to realize that you don't see eye-to-eye exactly on everything and you start to wonder whether it's a good idea," she said. "I think most people experience a lot of negativity toward the person they may have decided to marry."

Complicating matters for Veblen and Paul are their respective families. Veblen's mother is a narcissistic hypochondriac, a self-pitying dispenser of back-handed advice, while her father is institutionalized with mental illness. Paul's parents embarrass him with their hippie lifestyle and infuriate him with their perceived favoritism toward Paul's mentally handicapped, often out of control, older brother.

As for her own upbringing, McKenzie grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from UC Santa Cruz, but her father's family has roots in Palo Alto. During the Depression, her grandfather attempted to sell parcels of land in Felton Gables, without success. He later worked at Stanford University for 20 years, as the assistant to the third president of the college, Ray Lyman Wilbur.

Trips to Palo Alto to visit relatives were part of McKenzie's childhood, and in her book she portrays the South Bay's metamorphosis into an affluent, traffic-congested, tech-obsessed metropolis with hidden pockets of natural wonder.

"(Palo Alto) still is a beautiful place, but there was less conspicuous consumption (when I was young), for sure."

McKenzie's use of "conspicuous consumption" is no accident. The term was coined by her heroine's idol and namesake, Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929), the Norwegian-American, erstwhile Stanford professor, and author of "The Theory of the Leisure Class." (If ordering McKenzie's novel online, don't confuse it with the similarly titled non-fiction collection of T. Veblen's writings.)

"I don't know how many people in Palo Alto realize that Thorstein Veblen lived there," McKenzie said. "He actually died on Sand Hill Road, and he had a cabin up on the Old La Honda Road."

She continued, "There's such a contrast between the affluence in Palo Alto now and the very humble, plain life he was living. It's just so ironic that the Stanford Mall is only a few blocks from where his house was."

After graduation from UC Santa Cruz, McKenzie was an assistant fiction editor at the Atlantic Monthly, in Boston, "a dream job." Three years later, she returned to the West Coast to earn a Master's in Creative Writing from Stanford. She is the author of the story collection "Stop That Girl" and the novel "MacGregor Tells the World." An editor for the Chicago Quarterly Review and Catamaran Literary Review, she has taught creative writing at Stanford's school of continuing studies.

While writing "The Portable Veblen," McKenzie received a 2010 NEA/Japan US-Friendship Commission fellowship to research and experience both the traditional and contemporary artistic milieu of Japan for three months.

"Because I was editing the Chicago Quarterly Review at that time, I proposed this idea that I would do an anthology of contemporary Japanese literature. It ended up being published as a book ("My Postwar Life: New Writings from Japan and Okinawa") instead."

Another result of her time in Asia, McKenzie said, is that she is now writing a novel based on her grandmother's work as a doctor with Nagasaki radiation victims.

McKenzie's interest in science and medicine fueled the subplot in "The Portable Veblen" about Paul's medical invention. Her research led her to the weird world of medical marketing.

"There's this whole world of sales going on, and for sales you need to get people excited about the products," she said. "There's sort of a mismatch between these products -- which might be for boring holes in people's heads or suppressing the smell of corpses -- and the language that you need to use for marketing. I found that disjuncture ghoulishly fascinating."

"The Portable Veblen" tackles disturbing topics such as mental illness, corporate malfeasance, wounded veterans and family dysfunction. McKenzie prevents these topics from becoming overwhelmingly bleak through the liberal application of humor.

Perhaps emblematic of the novel's skewed sense of reality is the squirrel that serves as the mascot of the book and seems to comment on the action.

McKenzie explained, "The squirrel is a grace note in the book, kind of an alternate consciousness, maybe a super-ego for Veblen, representing the values of the natural world that she aspires to."

Whatever else you may think about "The Portable Veblen," McKenzie wants to make one thing clear.

"There are some reviews that say that the squirrel talks. And I have to say, 'No, it doesn't. The squirrel does not talk!'"

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