"The Vegan": The Logic of the Stomach
In this edition of Marginalia, Andrew Lipstein's novel about language and its failures, machine learning and markets, and how to be good.
The Vegan, Andrew Lipstein (2023)
Announcing his latest novel on The Social Media Formerly Known As Twitter, Andrew Lipstein wrote that the book would contain “high finance, moral reckonings, um veganism, language, ZzzQuil, British playwrights, machine learning, original sins, status anxiety, art, circumcision, guilt, greed, and how far we’ll go to be good”. The feat here is not stuffing a book with all these things, though that is in itself impressive; what’s stunning is that these multitudes come together with such elegant coherence. The Vegan is a complex machine that runs smoothly, and watching the cogs turn (yet somehow defying any sense of mechanical lifelessness) is just one of the book’s many joys.
The book’s narrator, Herschel Caine, is like a character out of Succession, if any of them had a soul. Extremely wealthy, married and planning for children, successful in his career, Caine is also acutely aware of his own sense of the Good. It is the refining of this sensibility that narrows it to a pinpoint that pricks his conscience in every waking moment, except in one crucial lapse that sets the plot in motion. When his wife’s friend becomes a bore at a dinner party, Caine fixes her a drink in the sense that a gangster fixes a horse race: he drugs her. It’s only a little ZzzQuil in even less vodka, but it’s enough that when she leaves to catch an Uber, she falls, hits her head, and winds up comatose in a hospital.
What follows is not what I’d anticipated having read Lipstein’s first novel, Last Resort, which centres itself around a defining act by the protagonist. I expected that the drugging of the friend would be the centre of gravity in The Vegan, but Lipstein has far more to explore than that. We move in and out of two worlds, that of his home life and emerging veganism, and that of his workplace where he and his team have used machine learning to crack the stock market. All the breakage implied by the word “crack” is intentional. What seems, at first, to be a miracle might, in reality, destroy the market at a conceptual level, which puts it on the growing list of things that make Caine feel ethically suspect.
Despite his ever-present concern with leading a good life, Caine frequently sees himself and his actions through a glass darkly, or, perhaps more accurately, through rose-coloured glasses. When he visits a neighbour who is a book editor, Caine engages in an internal tête-à-tête against him, deciding that the neighbour is “the type to look down on a businessman, as if the world didn’t show itself to me the way it did to him”; a moment later, he thinks dismissively about his own reading of Whitman, Austen, and Barthes (implicating here all of the humanities): “Sure, it was good with a few glasses of wine, but in the morning it didn’t mean anything.” Thus he does what, a second earlier, he accused the neighbour of doing.
The veil through which Caine fails to clearly see his ethical self is drawn over more extreme breaches of good conduct. He shoots down the notion of confessing to his wife that he drugged their friend, just as he convinces himself that arson and poisoning are permissible, by obfuscating reality with clever words. It’s this interest in the relationship of language to both reality and morality that motivates The Vegan. In a piercingly observant section where Caine listens to The Four Seasons, he is awed by music’s ability to communicate without words, with a kind of purity that means “you could play The Four Seasons to a pig or an elephant and they would have to feel, somewhere, what it was all about”.
In his desire to get away from the alienation of words and towards a closer synthesis between experience and reality, Caine attempts to communicate non-verbally with several animals (one scene in particular, involving a red panda, is simultaneously funny and pregnant with pathos). His disdain for the distancing effect of language grows such that he even becomes sceptical of music; after suggesting non-human animals could appreciate what The Four Seasons invokes, he changes his mind: “No, maybe it would only repulse them, serve as just another example of our need to abstract everything away from what it actually is.”
It is perhaps the failure of language and the abstraction of ideas that leads Caine to become a vegan. Early in the novel, he walks past a group of activists protesting outside his office building, and he thinks, “They weren’t radicals, they just wanted to feel alive; their animus wouldn’t change the world outside, it only expressed a void within.” His own veganism seems to be an expression of a void within him, a manifestation of a truth – his own guilt – that he has obscured with words, the rebellion of his soul against his intellect.
Caine attempts at one point to subjugate his nascent veganism when he realises he’s ordered his first vegetarian meal. It was, he tells himself, unintentional, a “trivial” coincidence, and he attempts to prove it by buying a lamb shawarma to eat. Before the meat can get to his mouth, however, his body rejects the now-revolting smell, he feels that he will vomit, he cannot even will his finger to touch the cooked corpse. In this we see the truth of intuition described by Czesław Miłosz in The Captive Mind, a truth that proceeds not from “the reasoning mind, but from a revolt of the stomach”:
“A man may persuade himself, by the most logical reasoning, that he will greatly benefit his health by swallowing live frogs; and, thus rationally convinced, he may swallow a first frog, then the second; but at the third his stomach will revolt.”
Recalling this logic of the stomach, I realised that one of the characters in The Vegan is called Milosz. A coincidence, maybe, but one that holds a light to the page in any case. In The Captive Mind, Czesław Miłosz describes the moral bankruptcy of Stalinist intellectuals and the divisions of identity caused by living under such regimes. His book opens with an analysis of a dystopian novel in which people are given a pill that induces blind obedience, which leads to the emergence of split personalities. And on page one of The Vegan, where we first meet Caine and Milosz, we read:
“They say the best person to start a quantitative hedge fund is someone who can both manage the hell out of other people and master any sort of math thrown their way. Milosz and I were that person, divided in two.”
This splitting of the self occurs at multiple levels in The Vegan, first between Caine and Milosz, then between Caine’s moral and immoral impulses, and then between Caine the carnivore and Caine the vegan. This splitting reaches a crescendo when Lipstein switches from first- to third-person narration, a stylistic choice that captures – with a painful authenticity I keenly recognised – the depersonalisation symptomatic of certain mental health crises.
I greatly enjoyed Lipstein’s first novel, Last Resort, so I fully expected to enjoy whatever he wrote next. The Vegan met my expectations and went well beyond. While Lipstein is not always the most graceful prose stylist (there are no sentential fireworks here), he knows how to get to the truth of things in a manner that often giddily plays with sheer thrills and literary introspection. The Vegan is much sharper with its ideas than Last Resort, much more assured and mature in its telling. Here is a book that makes the reader grateful for words even as the central character derides their value. This is a wonderful set of two minds to be in.
Marginalia, plur. noun:
“In getting my books, I have always been solicitous of an ample margin … for the facility it affords me of penciling suggested thoughts, agreements and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.”~ Edgar Allan Poe