Herschel Caine, the narrator of Andrew Lipstein’s second novel, “The Vegan,” might just upend the stock market. His hedge fund, which is in the throes of a few crucial deals with big investors, uses predictive software that works like a super-granular crystal ball, effectively rigging the system. Sure, such an invention might cannibalize his business – his whole line of work, even – but by then, Hershel figures, he’ll already be rich. His partner, Milosz, is the math guy; Hershel’s the talker, confident enough to be trusted, caffeinated enough to inspire belief in a nonexistent product.

This isn’t an ordinary boardroom satire. Fluorescent-lit meetings aren’t granted the tone or stakes of a battle. And while greed is one of Lipstein’s subjects, it’s not on bald display as it was, say, on “Succession.” No: Greed, “The Vegan” implies, is more pernicious than that. It needn’t involve backstabbing. It can be as passive as eating lamb shawarma for lunch.

What motivates Hershel isn’t only power for power’s sake, or even cash for cash’s sake, although he isn’t coy about wanting money. He and his wife, Franny, plan to renovate their home in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood and to start trying for a child. More than that, it seems, they desperately want to befriend their neighbors, Philip and Clara, a director and interior designer whose taste they admire.

“We wanted, we needed, to impress them,” Hershel observes, his coffee-fueled fixation flowing from comma splice to comma splice. To this end, he and Franny enlist her freshman-year college roommate, Birdie, a chatty British playwright, to join them for dinner with Philip and Clara. Their hope is that Birdie’s artistic persona will charm their friends-in-the-making, like a pleasant abstract painting hovering high on the wall of a Michelin-starred restaurant. Managing their social life as though it’s as wieldy as a spreadsheet, Hershel slots everyone in, and Franny whips up some pork.

Philip, it turns out, doesn’t eat meat; at this, Birdie quips about the heavy-handed gore in a film of his. Nobody gets Birdie’s Surrealist references, and her forthrightness about her divorce lands awkwardly. The artist’s real presence is grating; why can’t she just sit there and look interesting? When Birdie finally gets to be too much, Hershel, as a practical joke, whips her up a cocktail with ZzzQuil as a mixer, hoping she’ll zonk out or else leave. She does go, and the two couples have more fun without her.

This dinner party isn’t the only time Hershel’s character considers art, and the liberal arts generally, an empty class signifier, something to make use of. His hedge fund, Atra Acra, is designed to attract investors of “the learned sort, the sort who, if they didn’t know Latin, at least revered it.” But when his ZzzQuil prank has terrible consequences for Birdie, Hershel’s guilt starts to puncture his outlook – on art, on morality, on language and on passive consumption, which he starts to see everywhere.


Droopy-eyed teens with their necks slumped over their devices may be a common sight but also, suddenly, upsetting to Hershel. Their lulled existence and his “was an idea too big to comprehend yet too obvious even to state,” he observes, sounding like someone Birdie might know. Suddenly, meat is repulsive to him. Is it too decadent? He doesn’t know, and a neat summation would be dishonest. He announces to Franny that he’s becoming a vegan. Her white teeth, once lovely, repulse him now. Her clean, pink mouth. The inconspicuousness of her consumption habits.

During a visit to the Museum of Modern Art, Hershel muses about art that actively works “against the order crystallizing around us.” He considers – no, believes – that Atra Acra, his hedge fund, must be stopped. Whether his newfound morality is a phase, a flash of guilt-driven purity or a genuine awakening is the question driving the plot. Hershel offends the investors he’d been courting; he strips down and shows himself to a red panda in the park; he buys an aquarium to install in place of a bookshelf; he tests the limits of his marriage.

Along the way, Lipstein – whose previous novel, “Last Resort,” explored deceit in the literary world – lets loose some overwrought metaphors. (Hershel is sick of his “own stench,” and his world is “the size of a cage.”) But his setup also earns him the opportunity to riff on the progression of language alongside the progression of capital, a twined overgrowth. If satirizing a wannabe tech mogul feels like low-hanging fruit for some readers, Lipstein at least keeps the growing genre fresh.

Maddie Crum is a writer and editor in New York.

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