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.