The Veg­an

  • Review
By – July 31, 2023

Andrew Lipstein’s sec­ond nov­el, The Veg­an, fol­lows Her­schel Caine, a hedge fund man­ag­er whose bou­tique firm is on the verge of cre­at­ing an algo­rithm that will allow them to out­smart the mar­ket and become fab­u­lous­ly wealthy. He’s liv­ing in a beau­ti­ful town­house in Cob­ble Hill, mar­ried to a sup­port­ive wife. All is well — until, in a fit of impa­tience, he decides to roofie an obnox­ious din­ner par­ty guest to get her to leave. On the way out, the guest falls and sus­tains a trau­mat­ic brain injury. This trig­gers a cos­mic change in Her­schel: he grows an extreme dis­taste for all foods that are not veg­an, and he finds him­self com­muning deeply with the ani­mals he encounters.

The Veg­an is a nov­el of ideas, and it explores them expert­ly, with great curios­i­ty. Her­schel, unable to deny the strong feel­ings he has toward ani­mals, begins alien­at­ing him­self from those around him and makes one bizarre” life choice after anoth­er. He gets into argu­ments with neigh­bors about the way they care for their ani­mals, and fights with his wife about his belief that an animal’s life is worth the same as his or hers. These argu­ments encour­age the read­er to grap­ple with impor­tant ques­tions: How does one man­age their feel­ings about their com­plic­i­ty in a world built on unnec­es­sary cru­el­ty toward ani­mals? Can rec­og­niz­ing one’s com­plic­i­ty absolve them of guilt? Can small ges­tures lead to bet­ter­ment, or does one need to whol­ly shake their com­plic­i­ty and fight against the forces caus­ing the damage?

Herschel’s move­ment toward a more ani­mal-like exis­tence also caus­es him to ques­tion the lim­its of lan­guage. He grows irri­tat­ed with his ther­a­pist and wife for ask­ing him to offer expla­na­tions about his recent changes. As he attempts to describe to his wife a con­nec­tion he felt with a dog, Her­schel con­sid­ers what he’d lose in try­ing to ratio­nal­ize his lived expe­ri­ence: I felt I should say more, make it all make more sense to her, but I knew that every inch in that direc­tion would be an inch away from the truth. What hap­pened was inef­fa­ble; that was the point.” He craves the authen­tic life of an ani­mal, and finds him­self dis­trust­ing and resent­ful of the social rules that have gov­erned his life. 

One of the novel’s strengths lies in its vis­cer­al details. Food, such as eggs, are not sim­ply unap­pe­tiz­ing to Her­shel; he becomes so over­whelmed with dis­gust that, in one instance, he vom­its. The pas­sages in which he encoun­ters non-veg­an foods — and those in which he grap­ples with his role in the hedge fund, whose algo­rithm is not act­ing as eth­i­cal­ly as he hoped — are described in a rich, med­i­ta­tive prose. This lev­el of inte­ri­or­i­ty, how­ev­er, can some­times slow the pace of an oth­er­wise propul­sive book.

There are argu­ments Her­schel Caine will put for­ward that many read­ers will find them­selves rebuff­ing. Nev­er­the­less, The Veg­an will com­pel them to (re)examine their beliefs — all while enjoy­ing a thrilling, imag­i­na­tive journey.

Ben­jamin Selesnick lives and writes in New Jer­sey. His writ­ing has appeared in decomP, Lunch Tick­et, San­ta Fe Writ­ers’ Project Quar­ter­ly, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. He holds an MFA in fic­tion from Rutgers-Newark.

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