Author pho­to by Mette Lützhøft Jensen

Chloe Cheimets speaks with Andrew Lip­stein about his new nov­el The Veg­an, explor­ing com­pet­i­tive moral­i­ty, the pow­er of mon­ey, and the role of guilt in our con­tem­po­rary world. 

Chloe Cheimets: Her­schel Caine is a part­ner in a quan­ti­ta­tive hedge fund. The Veg­an deft­ly explores the com­pet­i­tive­ness, para­noia, greed, and sin­gle-mind­ed math­e­mat­i­cal bril­liance of this world. What drew you to hedge funds, and algo­rith­mic trad­ing in particular?

Andrew Lip­stein: I love mon­ey. I love how it acts in soci­ety as a score” that no one can dis­agree with. I think that’s why there’s often so much wicked­ness sur­round­ing it; its sim­plic­i­ty and truth is so allur­ing that many of us believe it can wash away all of the impu­ri­ty involved in its acqui­si­tion and use.

I also believe — as do many oth­ers — that there will be a time not too far in the future when machine learn­ing (as in, AI) will be able to reap immense prof­its from the pub­lic mar­kets. We are so used to equat­ing val­ue with pro­duc­tion, and even con­tri­bu­tion to soci­ety, but there’s an entire indus­try built on smash­ing this equiv­a­lence to smithereens. As part of my research for The Veg­an, I inter­viewed a hand­ful of quant hedge fund CEOs and ana­lysts. I want­ed not only the indus­try jar­gon and tech­ni­cal­i­ties but their point of view, their human­i­ty, their way of see­ing right and wrong.

In a more oblique sense, I’m attract­ed to high finance as I’m intense­ly inter­est­ed in how mon­ey can act as a metaphor for moral­i­ty, and vice ver­sa. More and more, it seems, we think of our own good­ness as some­thing with a num­ber attached to it, as if it can go up and down like our bank account, as if we can make up for a moral deficit in one part of our life by attain­ing a sur­plus in anoth­er. Even more fas­ci­nat­ing, I think, is how moral­i­ty — like mon­ey — is becom­ing defined by its val­ue rel­a­tive to those around us. If every­one in the world gets a thou­sand dol­lars, no one becomes rich­er. Moral­i­ty doesn’t have to be like this — com­mu­nal­i­ty is not a fixed val­ue — but that’s what I see today. We prof­it, so to speak, when we find moral flaws in oth­ers. We build our own moral rich­es atop those with deficits (as we see it), but the great irony is that moral­i­ty is sub­jec­tive, and those we find moral­ly bank­rupt may think of us in the same way. So we all can feel like we’re get­ting rich­er while our moral econ­o­my is actu­al­ly dri­ven by the devalu­ing of every­one else.

CC: At the begin­ning of the nov­el, Her­schel Caine has recent­ly pur­chased a town­house in Cob­ble Hill. The moral and social anx­i­eties of the con­tem­po­rary Brook­lyn upper class are an impor­tant back­drop to this sto­ry. How impor­tant was set­ting for you while writ­ing? Do you see this, at least in part, as a sto­ry about Brooklyn?

AL: I can’t think of a bet­ter illus­tra­tion of the con­cept of the nar­cis­sism of small dif­fer­ences than Brook­lyn neigh­bor­hoods. To most­ly any­one out­side of the city, brown­stone Brook­lyn is one place. But when you spend some time here — in the past few years I’ve lived in Clin­ton Hill, Park Slope, and Cob­ble Hill — you sense slight dis­crep­an­cies in the cul­tur­al fab­ric, even tweaks in moral pri­or­i­ties. Cob­ble Hill is well-to-do, it’s pros­per­ous, but in a ner­vous kind of way. The stores that pop up more and more — high-end clothes bou­tiques, War­by Park­er, home goods pur­vey­ors with wares whose pri­ma­ry pur­pose is to seem expen­sive — sat­is­fy a need to fit in, to buy in, to show you’re not an out­sider. It’s fun­ny for a neigh­bor­hood and its denizens to feel so, well, unneigh­bor­ly. It’s also deeply sad and, I think, indica­tive of some­thing glob­al and time­less. If wealth and finan­cial com­fort lead to exis­ten­tial detach­ment and fear of our fel­low man and his opin­ion, how else can we see mon­ey but a zero-sum game?

Is it a sto­ry about Brook­lyn? Like all sto­ries, mine is about a time and place. But I hope it’s also about some­thing more permanent.

More and more, it seems, we think of our own good­ness as some­thing with a num­ber attached to it, as if it can go up and down like our bank account.

CC: As the sto­ry pro­gress­es, and Her­schel sinks into guilt and des­per­a­tion, the writ­ing stays extreme­ly close to Herschel’s minute by minute per­cep­tions and phys­i­cal sen­sa­tions. It’s a deeply sen­so­ry and imme­di­ate book. How did you land on this style of storytelling?

AL: We often think of moral­i­ty as log­i­cal, intel­lec­tu­al, and ana­lyt­i­cal. We make moral deci­sions. We are moral actors. And yet, our moral­i­ties often speak to us through bod­i­ly reac­tions and emo­tions: we become dis­gust­ed by those who vio­late our morals, and we may even fall in love with some­one via their good­ness (how­ev­er we, indi­vid­u­al­ly, define that word).

This con­tra­dic­tion — moral­i­ty can be both ratio­nal and car­nal — is sim­i­lar to the mutu­al­ly exclu­sive ways we view our species: we are ani­mals, yet we are not ani­mals. We con­sid­er our­selves like them when it suits us, and we don’t when it doesn’t. This hypocrisy shows itself most in our dietary prac­tices. Many west­ern­ers eat cow and pig and chick­en but not horse or dog or cat. The first three are deli­cious, the sec­ond three repul­sive. These choic­es are too con­trived not to be cul­tur­al, yet we pre­tend they’re innate. This is like all of moral­i­ty: we must pre­tend it is some­thing like truth, but it is, of course, noth­ing at all.

CC: Her­schel devel­ops an aver­sion to eat­ing meat and ani­mal byprod­ucts. Can you speak on Herschel’s veg­an­ism and its cen­tral­i­ty in the story?

AL: Ear­ly on in the book, Her­schel cross­es an invis­i­ble bound­ary, and believes — or makes him­self believe — that his neighbor’s dog can rec­og­nize moral­i­ty, specif­i­cal­ly Herschel’s guilt. It’s a sim­ple idea, mere­ly a seed, but it has the pow­er to sprout a rad­i­cal world­view. For Her­schel, this starts with going veg­an — not rad­i­cal at all, giv­en ten mil­lion Amer­i­cans have made the same choice. But after every step up his lad­der of virtue, Her­schel finds him­self in rar­er com­pa­ny, and soon enough all of human­i­ty is beneath him. This is what is so dis­ori­ent­ing (and dan­ger­ous) about the mod­ern instinct to think of moral­i­ty as a com­pe­ti­tion: what exist­ed to bind us togeth­er can make us utter­ly alone.

CC: This book has a won­der­ful pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the mean­ing and ety­mol­o­gy of words. Her­schel calls it a mis­trust of lan­guage.” Can you talk about Herschel’s inter­est in lan­guage? As a writer, do you share his mistrust?

AL: Yes, haha. I do. I believe lan­guage is one of the most, if not the most, malig­nant actors on human con­nec­tion. Like a can­cer, it absorbs all of the thing it acts on — com­mu­ni­ca­tion — while dis­tort­ing it, ruin­ing it, mak­ing it its own.

At his most deranged, Her­schel decides he and his wife should con­ceive a child dur­ing a week­end devoid of words. We find the idea ridicu­lous, but reflex­ive­ly, defen­sive­ly. Why is that so absurd to us? What part of our­selves would we have to aban­don to accept that idea, and why are we so afraid to let it go?

But Herschel’s inter­est in (dis­avow­ing) lan­guage is also self­ish, of course. Lan­guage helps him describe to him­self what exact­ly he’s done to Birdie. It solid­i­fies the whirl of real­i­ty into neat log­i­cal blocks. Only by reject­ing the crys­tal­liz­ing force of lan­guage is he free to manip­u­late the facts as he wish­es — or dis­re­gard them entirely.

CC: Guilt, and its rever­ber­a­tions, is a major theme of this nov­el. Guilt is also a trope of Jew­ish life. Do you see this as a Jew­ish sto­ry? How does Herschel’s Jew­ish­ness influ­ence his choic­es in this text?

AL: After I wrote The Veg­an, over lunch, my edi­tor asked me why so much of my writ­ing comes back to guilt, in a way that I took to mean: Why do you feel so guilty? He was right. I’ve always felt guilty, even as a young child, even when I had noth­ing to feel guilty about. It’s a Jew­ish trope, of course, the guilt your moth­er gives you, the hand­wring­ing, the rumi­na­tion. But it’s more than a car­i­ca­ture: guilt, at its core — tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty, tak­ing on the bur­den of own­er­ship for your actions, inten­tion­al and oth­er­wise — is a very Jew­ish con­cept. Jews are obsessed with law, with sort­ing out lia­bil­i­ty and jus­tice, with mea­sur­ing crimes and their pun­ish­ments. In this way, The Veg­an is very Jewish.

But Her­schel rejects his own Jew­ish­ness. Or rather, he employs it when it ben­e­fits him and dis­cards it when it doesn’t. He uses it to paint him­self as a vic­tim, yet calls Jew­ish law arbi­trary, out­dat­ed, and bizarre.” He blames the Jews, in part, for the con­trivance of writ­ten lan­guage, yet laments that his gen­tile neigh­bor — just by dint of his hair­style, man­ner­isms, and wall art — is appro­pri­at­ing Jew­ish cul­ture. In this way, his Judaism is just anoth­er emo­tion­al ingre­di­ent” of his life, in the way I use that term in this pas­sage: I con­sid­ered it a skill, even, this abil­i­ty to cleave cause and effect, to chop up the emo­tion­al ingre­di­ents of my life and use them as I wished.”

CC: Your debut nov­el, Last Resort, came out in 2022. Your third nov­el, Some­thing Rot­ten, comes out in 2025. This is an amaz­ing­ly pro­lif­ic moment for you! What’s your writ­ing process like?

AL: It’s fun­ny, when I wrote Last Resort I believed in a kind of whim­si­cal approach to inspi­ra­tion: catch­ing it, court­ing it, writ­ing when­ev­er it struck me — at what­ev­er hour that hap­pened to be. With The Veg­an, I wrote fever­ish­ly over the course of a win­ter, hit­ting word counts I’ll nev­er approach again. Then I had a child, and time became in short sup­ply, and now I’m more of an ass in the seat” writer. Ear­ly in the morn­ing, five days a week, with­out fail (when I’m work­ing on some­thing), I sit down and write, pro­duc­ing 500 to 1000 words. I wish I’d done this ear­li­er. By writ­ing less each day (and thus hav­ing more of it to think about what I want to write the next day) I’ve found I have more to say than I have time to write — all a writer could ask for from the gods of pro­duc­tion, really.