Squirrelling About – The Portable Veblen

It’s not often I finish a book in which the plot is almost entirely about a relationship, and I feel that it has been time well spent. Perhaps because of the squirrels, or the light-hearted take on the evils of big pharmaceutical companies, but whatever it is, The Portable Veblen has it.

I really don’t like the word ‘quirky.’ While it technically is just a way of describing something a little bit different, I always associate it with despicable practices like wearing a small hat at a jaunty angle on your head, or a hand-made printed T-shirt, just to be different. But I’m finding it hard to attribute another adjective to this novel. Our main character, Veblen, works at a dismally mundane job, taking into her hands the thankless task of translating, amongst other things, the works of the great Thorstein Veblen, into Norwegian. Add to that a propensity for finding spiritual connections with squirrels and a mother with severe hypochondria and you have, well, a quirky character.

The novel opens with a proposal. That, in itself, is refreshing. At least we’re avoiding the simplified notion that this is what comes at the end of a narrative. Paul, her new fiancé, is attempting to be as unquirky as he possibly can. Raised by hippy parents in what can only be described as a commune, with a disabled brother, Paul is desperate for the boring life of tamed suburbia. Put the two together, and of course you can see that this is not a story of love that will run smoothly.

But this novel is far more than a funny romance. Shortlisted for the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction, it has a wry wit that enables Elizabeth McKenzie to embark on an exploration of everything from a nation obsessed with war-mongering to mental illness. Her sharp observations are often uncomfortable, although she always seems to find the ridiculous and touching moments, even within the truly horrifying.

A quick flick through the book will reveal that a huge percentage of this book is written entirely in dialogue. This is no mean feat. New writers (myself included) often shy away from using too much dialogue, as it is incredibly difficult to not come across as cheesy, clichéd or downright clumsy. Of course, allowing your characters to speak is exactly what will bring them to life, but creating words that not only reveal personalities but also move the plot forward is more than tricky.

At its core, this is a book about all human relationships. The sacrifices, allowances and annoyances that we endure and cherish in order to develop the most important thing we can on the planet – a connection with each other.

How to be Awesome

I’ve always been a perpetual starter. So many hobbies, instruments, sports, arts, languages, begun but never mastered. Yet I’ve just finished the third draft of my first novel, and have completed numerous half marathons and two full marathons. I don’t think I started out particularly better at these two things than any of the others, so what’s the difference? I tried to piece together the differences and approaches that have allowed me to reach the ‘end’ of these things, while not getting past the starting point with so many others. What I discovered is that there is a definite pattern to it, and that (in theory) it could be applied to, well, anything.

What are you aiming for?

The nature of the task itself is bound to make a difference. While both my achievements were pretty long (26 miles and 92,000 words!) they do, at least, have an end. And on the way to that finish line, measurable steps. It turns out I’m pretty motivated by goals, and by competition. When I was making a myriad excuses about running (it’s cold, I’ve just eaten, my ankle feels a bit wobbly, my kit is wet, I can’t be arsed) I put together a training table (yeah, I know, loser) that allowed me to tick off the runs I’d achieved, how quick I’d done them, all that stuff. With the book, I did a tally of words that I did each day, then did a weekly/monthly tally – and my March self did significantly better than my January self.

As we’ve been telling the Year 7s this week (being a teacher means you get two goes at having a New Year, when it’s not as cold and you aren’t feeling as fat from Christmas) goals need to be measurable, with a specific time frame, in order to for them to be tangible. And for me, motivational. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started learning the guitar…

How can what you want to achieve be measured?

Well, the above is obvious, but for a while now I’ve been ‘learning French.’ What that means, in reality, is that I chat with my boyfriend when I can be bothered (not that often) make promises to go on Duolinguo every day, that I then don’t keep up with, and then get annoyed with myself every few months for having had a French boyfriend for over a year and a half and still have the French ability of my sixteen-year-old self. So yes, dammit, I’m making a table. Something I can tick off, like engaging with the language for 10mins every day, even if it’s just reading a French website, having a fortnightly tally of conversation practice and at least one dull grammar exercise. Hopefully, my January self will be ‘le merde.’

So break down your goals into manageable and measurable chunks, and let the awesomeness commence.

What are your incentives?

It’s all very well to want to get politically active in order to be a better person, or to want to learn the guitar because you think you’ll look bloody cool, but just like measuring how to get there, you need to know what success looks like, in a tangible way, otherwise you’ll give up before you get there. Another of my fantastically vague goals is ‘I want to be a writer.’ But what the hell does that look like? Here, I reckon simple carrot and stick approach is the way forward. When I finished my first marathon, I ate an enormous steak and drank a lot of Prosecco (champagne was 100 Euros) and felt bloody marvellous. If you’d give your six-year-old a sticker or a gold star, why not try the adult equivalent? Choosing a measurable point of success (being able to have a ten-minute conversation with someone in French without swearing and getting annoyed) and assigning something pleasurable will make it far more likely that you’ll get there. In fact, I haven’t really assigned something for my rather large milestone of finishing my novel, and as a result have been floating about feeling vaguely anticlimactic all week. Should have had another steak.

Write down the thing you want to be able to do, the date you want to do it by, and what the reward will be. Through this method, you’re more likely to reach your target, and be happy about getting there.

Are you being realistic?

For me, this is a very important question. I’m a terrible ‘should-er.’ On the (rare) occasions I waste time, I’m consumed with huge guilt at what productive, life-affirming, healthy, wonderful thing I could have been doing rather than watching Netflix or pissing about on Buzzfeed. Take now, for instance. It’s 8pm on a Friday. All sensible people are in the pub by now. I’m writing a blog post and making granola.

If your goals are too unrealistic, they will be unsustainable, and before you know it you’re berating yourself on the sofa, having once again failed to learn Chinese/the piano/how to make an origami frog. And at the same time, give yourself a break. It’s a fine line between slacking off and resting, but do allow yourself days off (I made the mistake of scheduling in a load of Sunday tutoring when I first started. Terrible idea. I hated everyone). That way, you actually want to do the things you’ve given yourself time for.

What are you waiting for?

I could write some life-affirming claptrap here, perhaps a motivational quote, but you probably get that stuff so much on Facebook you don’t need it here. You get the idea; you’re brilliant, seize the day, etc.

Having achieved one of my goals for the week (more regular blogging – this is my 45th post!) I’m off down the pub. Achievable, measurable goals, with positive incentives once they are achieved. I could get used to this.

But I’m Not Ready!

It’s definitely a reason to be cheerful. In Devon last week, people were on the beach in actual bikinis (I was in my boyfriend’s shorts as I’d packed a little pessimistically). Flip flops were flapping well into the night, despite plummeting evening temperatures (I couldn’t feel my feet) and everywhere the glow of red faces that hadn’t seen the sun for about seven months warmed the streets. Spring has indeed sprung, with an early hint of summer.

Arriving back to London, I was brought back to earth with a bump. Underneath the exuberant smell of early barbecue smoke, something more sinister has raised its head. On my way back from a book reading (yes it’s a massive plug, click here for details) I was greeted by the sight of an enormous woman in a bright yellow bikini, not a blemish or blobby bit anywhere, and the highly accusatory tagline, “ARE YOU BEACH BODY READY?” Fantastic. No doubt the gyms are already full of sweaty women,  images of themselves in a pretty dress or said bikini looming large in front of them (the name escapes me but I do remember another ad campaign based entirely on this premise, as if reducing your risk of heart disease or, you know, preventing early death were simply about a quest to look good). It would be so lovely if the arrival of a few days of sunshine could be greeted with a walk in the park, a glass of wine outside a cafe perhaps, rather than a mad dash for the juicer or a new gym membership.

It seems horrifying that such a blatantly sexist advert is still allowed in this day and age. And yes, it is sexist. Having recently devoured How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran (If you haven’t, you should) a lot of complex issues are reduced to some wonderfully simple questions. One being, ‘are the boys doing it?’ And in this case, no, of course they aren’t. While I am aware that there are plenty of unrealistic representations of men’s bodies, the tone is rather different. I don’t see them being practically screamed at from a billboard by a giant headless woman for being a lazy cow and daring to let your figure morph into some sort of hideous slop that self-respecting people don’t want paraded in front of them while they’re trying to defend their ice cream from a marauding seagull. I don’t appreciate being told I can’t wear what I like on the beach unless I’ve substituted real and natural food for some protein powder that turns you into a fart machine. Believe me, I know.

It is ridiculous that we are still subjected to such a narrow ideal when it comes to beauty. I am aware that they have a job to do and a product to sell, but it is so all-pervasive I find myself swayed by it even when I am aware of what it is doing. I’m sure I can’t be the only one. Personally, I stare at her flat stomach and thighs, an area of personal concern, while others will look at the round boobs or the narrow top of the arms. And it gets everywhere. I restrained myself from protesting to someone on the train that I’d actually been for a run, when I overheard comments about obesity while I was eating a Mars bar on the tube (have you noticed? Women hardly ever eat chocolate in public). The impact of this stuff is too important to be understated. A frightening study recently found that being underweight could drastically increase your chances of dementia. This does not surprise me. Bouncing on and off fad diets, starving yourself, juicing, eating nothing but carrots and kale, none of these options is going to give you the right amount of nutrients in order to secure proper brain and body function. It reminds me of that bit in Bridget Jones’ Diary, where she had genuinely forgotten that calories were necessary, rather than people just being greedy and breaking their diets.

Not to mention the psychological strain it puts us all under. I was incredibly moved by a TED talk which discussed the impact body image can have. It questioned all the things that women could achieve if they weren’t worrying about how they look. I know I’d get a damn sight more useful things done if I neglected my hair removal routine, or didn’t spend twenty minutes deliberating over what to wear, or whether or not to eat a creme egg. I could have sorted out world hunger by now. Or at least learned a language. Maybe figured out how to make scones that rise. It wouldn’t be so bad if we weren’t perpetuating this crap ourselves. Just this week Pink had to defend herself to abusive comments about her weight (some of them couldn’t spell which cushions it a bit) and Kelly Clarkson has also been criticised for daring to stop constantly worrying about how her body looks. All of which continues to support the notion that a woman, first and foremost, is defined by her external looks. Enough is enough.

So what is to be done? In sync with the fabulous Rhiannon Lucy Cosslet in The Guardian, I think it’s about time we stood up to these companies and made it very clear that we are sick of being bullied by their lazy excuse for advertising. Next time you see something that is encouraging you to feel ashamed of how you look, do something. Tweet about it (including the brand), mention it to a friend, put it on Facebook, take a picture on Instagram, anything that allows the message to be disseminated as widely as possible. And then the question can be turned on its head, asking them if they are ready to stop disgraceful and sexist body-shaming to make a few quid.

Dear Terry,

I’ve been meaning to write this for a long time. It was on one of those lists that you make, along with changing the address on your driving licence and washing the curtains. Now you’ve gone and spoiled it, by dying. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the irony, you yourself might have had a little dialogue with the man himself, I won’t even attempt to write that, I wouldn’t presume to possess the stoical wry humour you managed to find in the darkest moments of the human experience. Still, it was a bit rude not to wait for my letter.

You probably had better things to do than read this, to be honest. What with dealing with Pratchett’s posterior cortical atrophy and all, writing yet more fantastic works, generally reading and learning all the amazing stuff you knew (how did you keep it all in your head?) along with hanging out with your mates. And quaffing. So maybe it’s best you didn’t get to read it after all. The thing is, it turns out you had a pretty profound impact on my life. In fact I didn’t really realise how much until I started crying yesterday when I found out you’d died. I’ve heard of people doing that for people they’ve never met, but I always thought it was a bit lame to be honest. Just the thought of all of your wonderful characters, your lightning wit, that fabulous prose. The idea of it just cutting off. Well, it was emotional. I think people underestimate the power of humour.

I wrote my dissertation about you. I’ve always adored books, but by the time I got to the third year of my degree, I have to say I was getting a little tired of the snobbery surrounding jumped-up ideas of ‘literature.’ Don’t get me wrong, there’s a reason great works are considered great works, but I also get frustrated at the idea that something has to be difficult and arduous to read in order to be ‘worthy,’ that unless I need a thesaurus to wade through it, I’m not learning anything. Luckily, I found a lecturer who shared my absolute conviction that, on the sly, you’d been writing a bit of literature yourself. Sneaky. I can see how you disguised it. You set it in an alternate world (fantasy is obviously not the same as Real Books) and made it funny. Dear Gods, it’s hardly surprising not many people noticed. The thing is, as far as I’m concerned, literature is something that changes the way you see the world a little bit, that leaves you staring out of the window for a good five minutes, thinking about why we do what we do, and how the world works. It also means something different to you each time you come back to it, which is something not all books can achieve. Yours do. I started reading you in my teens, I’m still going now, and am frantically buying up as many Pratchett books as possible to treat myself to that fabulous experience again. To be honest, I found the dissertation again the last time I moved house and it was bloody awful, so I’m glad you didn’t read that. Nothing like a twenty-year-old trying to sound like an academic to ruin some decent ideas, but I’m still so proud I did it. Somewhere, in the University of Southampton (in L-space, in fact) there is a little bit of writing that acknowledges the impact that you’ve had on the world. And I’m not the only one.

I think those Discworld books are brilliant, by the way. My first real exposure to feminism came when I read Wyrd Sisters. Nothing like satire to expose the foibles of representation in the world. You wouldn’t stop there though. Just because it was trolls, doesn’t mean your examination of race relations in Ankh-Morpork had any less resonance in Feet of Clay. In asking questions of the tropes we have saturated ourselves with in the world of fairytale, you kept asking us to look again at the things we do here, in Roundworld, and wonder if things aren’t all that different, and shouldn’t need a bit of a rethink. You know, after a bit of quaffing. Did I mention how funny you are? That’s hard. I went to a stand up night the other day for people just starting out. As expected, it was varied. Some were great, some less so. Genuine humour is difficult. You’ve probably made me laugh out loud more than anyone I’ve ever met. That stuff stays with you. When I was training to be a teacher, we learned how the brain makes much stronger associations with things when they provoke a humorous response. Which is why I could never understand why things that are funny are always dismissed as being trivial. The things I remember from your books have stayed with me far longer than any stuffy professor boring me to tears with his ideas about…stuff (see, can’t even think of anything I learned).

Not just those books though. Two of my favourite books in the whole world (and trust me, I read. A lot.) are Good Omens and Nation. They are simply wonderful. The kind of books that made me sit and stare out the window for, well, a whole afternoon actually, just thinking about that wonderful world, the language, the characters, allowing myself to wallow, to savour the beauty of that experience. That doesn’t happen very often. I want to be a writer, Terry. I wonder if I would have done what I did – quit my job, started an MA, chosen an impoverished life where I agonise over sentences, stare out the window more in frustration than enjoyment sometimes, if you hadn’t made me believe in the power of words. Which is even more of a bugger, because now you’re dead I can’t blame you and ask if you wouldn’t mind sending me a few quid to help with the rent. Like I said, sneaky.

If I were you, I’d think of some sort of wise statement to end this letter on, to allow the camera to zoom out in a lovely metaphorical way, leave us all whimsical and smiling. But I can’t. And I worry that no-one else will be able to do it quite like you. Which is a bit crap, really. You’ll understand why I’m finding it hard to end on a positive note. I’ll give it a go.

Instead of sitting around and feeling a bit bloody miserable, maybe we can imagine all those people, literally millions, who have had the great fortune to lose themselves in one of your amazing books. And let’s imagine how they’re all writing letters, just like this, maybe in their head, maybe out loud (although that’s riskier, socially) but they’re doing it, all the same. I think they’d all sign it off in the same way.