Wednesday, September 7, 2022

THE PORTABLE VEBLEN, family drama played for laughs & MY NAME IS WILL, Shakespeare as countercultural rebel...twice & THE READER, Guilt! GUILT!


The Penguin Press
$17.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The Portable Veblen is a dazzlingly original novel that’s as big-hearted as it is laugh-out-loud funny. Set in and around Palo Alto, amid the culture clash of new money and old (antiestablishment) values, and with the specter of our current wars looming across its pages, The Portable Veblen is an unforgettable look at the way we live now. A young couple on the brink of marriage—the charming Veblen and her fiancé Paul, a brilliant neurologist—find their engagement in danger of collapse. Along the way they weather everything from each other’s dysfunctional families, to the attentions of a seductive pharmaceutical heiress, to an intimate tête-à-tête with a very charismatic squirrel.

Veblen (named after the iconoclastic economist Thorstein Veblen, who coined the term “conspicuous consumption”) is one of the most refreshing heroines in recent fiction. Not quite liberated from the burdens of her hypochondriac, narcissistic mother and her institutionalized father, Veblen is an amateur translator and “freelance self”; in other words, she’s adrift. Meanwhile, Paul—the product of good hippies who were bad parents—finds his ambition soaring. His medical research has led to the development of a device to help minimize battlefield brain trauma—an invention that gets him swept up in a high-stakes deal with the Department of Defense, a Bizarro World that McKenzie satirizes with granular specificity.

As Paul is swept up by the promise of fame and fortune, Veblen heroically keeps the peace between all the damaged parties involved in their upcoming wedding, until she finds herself falling for someone—or something—else. Throughout, Elizabeth McKenzie asks: Where do our families end and we begin? How do we stay true to our ideals? And what is that squirrel really thinking? Replete with deadpan photos and sly appendices, The Portable Veblen is at once an honest inquiry into what we look for in love and an electrifying reading experience.


My Review
: A debut novel that, for its subject, takes on greed, Othering, and intergenerational family toxicity. While Author McKenzie published stories before this book appeared in 2016, the appearance of the novel was warbled delightedly about by Jeff VanderMeer, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Karen Joy Fowler. Reviews from the New York, and Los Angeles, and Seattle Timeses, the Boston Globe, Library Journal and Kirkus and NPR...several programs!...was longlisted for a National Book get the idea, it was down as The Next Big Deal.

But I forgot it existed. I read it in the dark year, and I came up dry on things to say about it.

In having a clear-out, I found the ARC again. It's such a strange title that I remembered it straight away. How many people in 2022 recall who Thorstein Veblen was? Not a lot more, or fewer honestly, than did in 2016. It's an odd and slightly off-putting thing to first-name your main character. It does efficiently Other her from the get-go. I wasn't sure that I liked that. I remember thinking that it was a darn good thing that she was the sort of person who could, in all seriousness, ask “Do you think wishful thinking is a psychiatric condition?”

So why did I resurrect this long-ago gift from a publisher who clearly never thought to hear from me about it again? Because, in flipping through it, I was caught by some unusually persuasive turns of phrase:
She had once concluded everyone on earth was a servant to the previous generation—born from the body’s factory for entertainment and use. A life could be spent like an apology—to prove you had been worth it.
Veblen espoused the Veblenian opinion that wanting a big house full of cheaply produced versions of so-called luxury items was the greatest soul-sucking trap of modern civilization, and that these copycat mansions away from the heart and soul of a city had ensnared their overmortgaged owners—yes, trapped and relocated them like pests.
The sharing of simple meals and discussing the day's events, of waking up together with plans for the future, things that feel practically bacchanalian when you're used to being on your own.

This is a writer speaking her truth. I love finding these moments. I think I left the book by the wayside because I couldn't, in the dark year, process the anticapitalist message as anything but the confirmation bias of my brain. In the decades of being steadily more and more radicalized by capitalism's failures of me, my chosen people, and the world my descendants will live in, I've resharpened that mental blade many times. This time I felt Author McKenzie's edge slash closer to me than before.

Author McKenzie reserves her loudest klaxon, her angriest blast of Gabriel's horn, for we-the-consumers. The sneaky message under Veblen's dithering disconnectedness is there. It's not unique, nor even original, but it's heartfelt and it's eloquent...and she's correct:
“I pledge allegiance, to the marketplace,
of the United States of America. TM.
And to the conglomerates, for which we shill,
one nation under Exxon-Mobile/Halliburton/Boeing/Walmart,
with litter and junk mail for all!”



MY NAME IS WILL: A Novel of Sex, Drugs, and Shakespeare

Twelve (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$1.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: A tale of two Shakespeares . . .

Struggling UC Santa Cruz grad student Willie Shakespeare Greenberg is trying to write his thesis about the Bard. Kind of . . .

Cut off by his father for laziness, and desperate for dough, Willie agrees to deliver a single giant, psychedelic mushroom to a mysterious collector, making himself an unwitting target in Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs.

Meanwhile, would-be playwright (and oppressed Catholic) William Shakespeare is eighteen years old and stuck teaching Latin in the boondocks of Stratford-upon-Avon. The future Bard’s life is turned upside down when a stranger entrusts him with a sacred relic from Rome . . . This, at a time when adherents of the “Old Faith” are being hanged, drawn, and quartered as traitors.

Seemingly separated in time and place, the lives of Willie and William begin to intersect in curious ways, from harrowing encounters with the law (and a few ex-girlfriends) to dubious experiments with mind-altering substances. Their misadventures could be dismissed as youthful folly. But wise or foolish, the bold choices they make will shape not only the “Shakespeare” each is destined to become . . . but the very course of history itself.


My Review
: Tediously moralistic look at how Society tames us by taking hostages.

Heteronormative...shocking, I know...look at Will Shakespeare as horndog, transformed by Time (and parenthood) into...ya know what, if you like this kind of stuff you already know you like it. I don't much. Catholicism is a major vector for evil in this world, there's no denying that to anyone not an apologist; but Catholics ran the risk of horrible deaths in order to enact their fantasy of Religion. On the modern side, academia comes in for a lot of unkind "ribbing" that's meant to make one see that everyone is, at heart, a spoiled brat. These things are crumped together like they're somehow morally equivalent. They are not.

But worst of all, from my personal point of view, is the fact that I had to agree with the author about something:
Shakespeare, in some sense, helped create the modern man, didn't he, his influence is that pervasive. He held the mirror up to nature, but he also created that mirror: so the image he created is the very one we hold ourselves up to.

Stop with the deification already, recognize that there was a man called Shakespeare who wrote a bunch of cool stuff and take the rose-colored glasses off, he did whatever he did in his personal life and we can not speak about it because we don't know. Guessing is misleading, because you're going to think he did what you'd've done. Maybe...maybe not.

I didn't like it; I don't particularly recommend it; but it was not a waste of eyeblinks for that one excellent insight.


(tr. Carol Brown Janeway)
Vintage Books
$16.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Hailed for its coiled eroticism and the moral claims it makes upon the reader, this mesmerizing novel is a story of love and secrets, horror and compassion, unfolding against the haunted landscape of postwar Germany.

When he falls ill on his way home from school, fifteen-year-old Michael Berg is rescued by Hanna, a woman twice his age. In time she becomes his lover—then she inexplicably disappears. When Michael next sees her, he is a young law student, and she is on trial for a hideous crime. As he watches her refuse to defend her innocence, Michael gradually realizes that Hanna may be guarding a secret she considers more shameful than murder.


My Review
: Another read I fastened on as I got my Little Free Library bag ready to go. When I won this from, I think, a website now long gone's giveaway, I was under no obligation to review it. I didn't want ephebeophile mother's long, long, long shadow over my life, her dead hands on my emotional neck still tightening spasmodically should I dare for a moment to forget to be unhappy, gave me a terrible and utter avoidance complex for this story.
Does everyone feel this way? When I was young, I was perpetually overconfident or insecure. Either I felt completely useless, unattractive, and worthless, or that I was pretty much a success, and everything I did was bound to succeed. When I was confident, I could overcome the hardest challenges. But all it took was the smallest setback for me to be sure that I was utterly worthless. Regaining my self-confidence had nothing to do with success...whether I experienced it as a failure or triumph was utterly dependent on my mood.
Exploration! Exploring the past! We students in the camps seminar considered ourselves radical explorers. We tore open the windows and let in the air, the wind that finally whirled away the dust that society had permitted to settle over the horrors of the past. We made sure people could see. And we placed no reliance on legal scholarship. It was evident to us that there had to be convictions. It was just as evident as conviction of this or that camp guard or police enforcer was only the prelude. The generation that had been served by the guards and enforcers, or had done nothing to stop them, or had not banished them from its midst as it could have done after 1945, was in the dock, and we explored it, subjected it to trial by daylight, and condemned it to shame.

There it is, the unvarnished solipsism of Surviving. The truth is we're all young Berg, we're all fucked-up Hanna. We can't make clean breaks with the past because the past is our inner self, our scaffolding. Young Berg learns this before Hanna puts him under the pressure and painful obligation of loving a broken thing.
The tectonic layers of our lives rest so tightly one on top of the other that we always come up against earlier events in later ones, not as matter that has been fully formed and pushed aside, but absolutely present and alive. I understand this. Nonetheless, I sometimes find it hard to bear.

And the tectonic pressures are too much for him to bear. They always are, he's not weak or defective. He's just...selfish:
I didn't like the way I looked, the way I dressed and moved, what I achieved and what I felt I was worth. But there was so much energy in me, such belief that one day I'd be handsome and clever and superior and admired, such anticipation when I met new people and new situations. Is that what makes me sad? The eagerness and belief that filled me then and exacted a pledge from life that life could never fulfill? Sometimes I see the same eagerness and belief in the faces of children and teenagers and the sight brings back the same sadness I feel in remembering myself.

One expects this in a boy. But young Berg will only ever be a boy. Hanna did that to him...Hanna enabled that in him.
Sometimes the memory of happiness cannot stay true because it ended unhappily. Because happiness is only real if it lasts forever? Because things always end painfully if they contained pain, conscious or unconscious, all along? But what is unconscious, unrecognized pain?
At first I wanted to write our story in order to be free of it. But the memories wouldn’t come back for that. Then I realized our story was slipping away from me and I wanted to recapture it by writing, but that didn’t coax up the memories either. For the last few years I’ve left our story alone. I’ve made peace with it. And it came back, detail by detail and in such a fully rounded fashion, with its own direction and its own sense of completion, that it no longer makes me sad. What a sad story, I thought for so long. Not that I now think it was happy. But I think it is true, and thus the question of whether it is sad or happy has no meaning whatever.

And there, at the end of the book, was my source of discontent made plain to me: This entire louche passage in Berg's life...has not meaning whatever. Neither did the similar passage in my own life. They just...were...and they don't mean much to anyone but me.

So why'd I read this again?

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