Allegedly Rational: On Andrew Lipstein’s “The Vegan”
By Tadhg HoeyOctober 23, 2023
The Vegan by Andrew Lipstein
The Vegan is Lipstein’s second novel, arriving just a year and half after his excellent debut, Last Resort, which told the story of a failed-novelist-turned-immensely-successful-ghostwriter, and was one of the finest and funniest send-ups of the art world in years. With The Vegan, Lipstein has trained his satirist’s eye on fintech. Life is looking promising for Herschel, a self-styled disruptor. At work, he and his company, Atra Arca, a hedge fund, are on the cusp of innovations in quantitative trading that would have market-shattering, if not outright market-ending, implications. At home in Cobble Hill, Herschel’s winsome wife, Franny, balances boundless support of his career with her own ambitious pursuits as a furniture designer. In addition to trying for their first child, they’re also trying to net their first new friends in the neighborhood—their next-door neighbors, Philip and Clara Guggenheim (yes, those ones).
The Caines are, by the standards of about 99 percent of the world’s population, offensively wealthy. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be anxious about their relative wealth or still shop at Trader Joe’s with the rest of the plebs.
When the Caines finally coax the Guggenheims over for dinner, an unexpected visitor, Birdie Barnes—Franny’s former classmate, now a famous playwright—shows up. Drunken, aggressively British, and with awkward conversations about her divorce, or art’s ethical responsibility to vegetarianism (Herschel had awkwardly served Philip, a vegetarian, a starter of “escarole with pancetta and hen of the woods”), Birdie is perfect for a comedy of manners, but her presence threatens to ruin Herschel’s meticulously crafted evening. While mixing Birdie a drink, Herschel decides to add a glug of ZzzQuil to take her down a notch or two. It does. She calls an Uber and leaves soon after, allowing the two happy couples to settle into their night of brownstone bliss.
Last Resort deftly parodied the Disneyfied New York through which an endless stream of ambitious, always swiping, occasionally practicing creatives drift, weighed down by day jobs, meeting curiosities at every turn—the kind of New York you might recognize from shows like High Maintenance (2016–20) or Girls (2012–17). The Vegan, on the other hand, revolves around another New York—the kind of restrained, boringly class-conscious and bourgeois version of the city in which you’d hope to never find yourself. Kind of like the world of Succession (2018–23), if you took away all of the funny characters and just left Kendall, but he’d never split with Rava, having abandoned his hopes of taking over Waystar and instead channeled all his cheery, awkward energy into fintech and impressing his neighbor.
The day after the dinner party, Atra Arca has made progress with their algorithm. It’s almost set to make the executives “impossibly, unimaginably wealthy.” Unlike most funds worth their salt, Atra Arca doesn’t often beat the market. Its promise lies in its algorithm, which is being fed monumental amounts of data (“50 petabytes of it, computed at 105 teraflops”) so it could one day have a black box filled with market prices, patterns, and historical data, which it will be able to use, of its own accord, to “make inconceivable connections between drastically disparate sets of information.” If the SEC doesn’t stop it first, that is.
For someone to profit, someone else has to be the loser. For the rarefied fund manager, though, this presents something of a quandary: how do we choose whom to profit from? What Atra Arca’s algorithm has been designed to do, essentially, is remove the intent from trading and make stock guessing a thing of the past. This would allow the conscientious investor to bury their heads in the metaphorical sand if, say, they’d made millions investing in a company that produces protective equipment or body bags days before news of a pandemic became widely known, or bought stock in an arms manufacturer at the first rumblings of war. It is a kind of pure capitalism, the kind in which investors have shed all moral culpability and can reach new heights thanks to the fact that they’ve allowed the machines to call the shots.
All this would be fine, but Herschel has become convinced that one of his potential investors has malicious intent—he wants to see, and steal, the code. To make matters worse, Herschel learns that Birdie fell after leaving their home and heading for the car, splitting her head on the curb, and is now languishing in a coma.
What happens next sets the novel on a strange course. Disturbed by the fact that his actions may have killed Birdie, Herschel becomes deranged by guilt. While preparing to head into the city, he makes eye contact with another neighbor’s dog and is overcome by a sense of recognition: “[The dog] recognized my guilt. Yes, guilt: that word—unlike dreadful, unlike solemn—wrapped fully around its meaning. It was such a pure, true thing, guilt, it was something even a dog could understand. And she did.”
If this is starting to sound strange, well, buckle up. Herschel then discovers that he can no longer stomach meat; he embraces veganism. One night soon after, under intense stress, he decides to chase the feeling he’d first gotten with his neighbor’s dog. First, he goes searching through bodegas in Cobble Hill and Park Slope to find a cat. No dice. Soon, in one of the novel’s strangest scenes, he finds a red panda in Prospect Park Zoo and undresses himself in an awkward attempt to rid himself of his guilt and be at one with nature. Not long after, he’s the proud owner of two anoles.
None of this is really at cross-purposes with the novel’s realism. It introduces a series of morality questions around animals into the text and uses them to deepen Herschel’s morality. Suddenly, Herschel is interested in protecting animals and interrogating our desire for mastery over nature.
It makes sense that Herschel is a huge fan of 1989’s Barbarians at the Gate (one of the classic books of Wall Street lore) but gets nothing out of Thomas Piketty or David Graeber (he appears to be reading the latter’s 2011 book Debt: The First 5000 Years). During his crisis, he tackles David Abram’s heady The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World (1996) and becomes interested in the idea that, as a species, we have become disconnected from nature. If, as that book argues, language itself can be viewed as an abstraction of our essential nature, and each technology thereafter has led us further astray, where, then, Herschel wonders, will an algorithm—designed to eradicate the strain of human thought around which he has built his entire life—lead us?
All of this against a backdrop of algorithmic progress, an ever-greater threat that his company’s code will be stolen, and the realization that their innovation “probably would have made a couple of people unreasonably wealthy while putting a lot of great thinkers out of work.” Many readers will find the connections drawn pleasantly, even artfully, neat. But I couldn’t stop asking myself: Do I buy this? Not the book’s strange premise, but its texture: the way it feels, at times, like it’s straining under the weight of the logic it has created for itself. In its ambitious attempt to reconcile its disparate ideas—veganism, morality, finance, language, revolution—I found that each new thread only reminded me of the book’s inherent strangeness. These are big ideas, but the lens through which Lipstein prompts us to make sense of them—an obscenely wealthy, tentatively vegan, morally dubious yet wants-to-be-liked hedge fund manager—only afforded this reviewer some half-baked, muddied insights into them.
In attempting to make readers care about ultra-wealthy, financier protagonists, a writer of literary fiction may find that they are engaged in an uphill struggle. There’s a reason we love seeing villains like Logan Roy in Succession, Gordon Gekko in Wall Street (1987), or John Milton in The Devil’s Advocate (1997)—they are gleefully rotten people. But in the absence of anyone eminently dislikable, and confronted with a character whose confused moral ambivalence is the driving factor of a narrative, one wishes that the satire felt a little sharper or the jokes hit a little harder. Two other books that feature hedge fund managers and bankers as their protagonists—Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success (2018) and Paul Murray’s The Mark and the Void (2015)—weave in entertaining or elaborate subplots to avoid boring the reader with the mostly underwhelming realities of the financial world.
In one of the novel’s most impressively written scenes, Herschel wanders through Manhattan in a daze after committing yet another crime. This one, though it was committed to protect the “integrity of the market” and will surely bring with it fairly serious legal implications, is what Herschel believes to be his most radical act. Dissociating and seeing himself in the second person, he has wandered away from the office and finds himself at the Museum of Modern Art, where he is confounded by The City Rises (1910) by Italian Futurist Umberto Boccioni. The painting is a vibrant and explosive attempt at rendering horses in motion. To look at it, the horses seem set to inflict violence on the humans around them. In front of it, Herschel remembers a curator telling him that “the Futurists celebrated transformation and glorified revolt, they sought to revitalize a decaying culture.” Lipstein writes of Herschel:
But now he felt, if not those thoughts exactly, then at least the presence of some wild truth—a truth not constructed by well-articulated arguments but one that could exist without words. What he saw was a cry for the natural, and not some Thoreau bullshit, which was just a lament for the past, but a way to live in the future, to wield conflict, to actively work against the order crystallizing around us. In front of him was art that said no thought mattered unless it led to action.
By this stage in the novel, Herschel’s supposedly radical act—his attempt to exert his will over the future—is already in the past. The act was inherently (to Herschel, perhaps paradoxically) conservative. By committing it, he is neither the heartless disruptor he’d thought he was nor suddenly some confused Bolshevik concerned with using his technology to make the world a more equitable place. This has all been done to protect the most mind-numbingly boring thing: the integrity of the market. As the novel ends and we see Herschel regain his grip on reality, we also see him lose touch with his morality. The Vegan has the makings of an ambitiously conceived, 10-course tasting menu, but by the end of it, it left me feeling hungry and confused. Like foie gras or veal, I suspect that it won’t be to everyone’s taste.
The Vegan reminded me of My Octopus Teacher (2020), a documentary about Craig Foster, a South African man who, in the grips of a midlife crisis, befriends an octopus. Early in the film, Foster tells us that he had been neglecting his family, particularly his son. To ameliorate this, Foster embarked on a year-long project of following around a female octopus, eventually growing close with it, as he worked out his complicated feelings about his duty as a father and husband. On one level, it’s a moving story of a man who reconnects with his humanity and his son through nature. On another, simpler and stranger level, it’s also the story of a man who chose to spend a year of his life chasing a cephalopod around the ocean floor and not really seeming to spend all that much time with his family.
At the end of My Octopus Teacher, Foster reflects on his relationship with the octopus, who has just died and whose mark on this Earth will live on through the millions of eggs she laid. “What she taught me was to feel … that you’re part of this place, not a visitor,” he says. “That’s a huge difference.” The octopus has brought him back in touch with his humanity and shown him that optimism, in the truest sense, is not just an idea, but also the act of contributing to that better future you imagine. No thought unless it led to action, as Herschel Caine might put it.
By the end of The Vegan, Birdie is still in a coma, and Herschel’s enlightenment—which was only ever a muddled epiphany, awkwardly and emotionally enmeshed with a crime for which he felt responsible—turns out to have been a brief detour, an aberration. The old Herschel—carnivorous and clear of conscience, allegedly as rational as the markets he’s trying to beat—is back. And he’s got his work cut out for him.
Tadhg Hoey is a writer living in New York. His writing has appeared in the Irish Times, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Business Post Magazine, The Stinging Fly, The Honest Ulsterman, BOMB Magazine, Dublin Review of Books, and HeadStuff.
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