Herschel Caine is in trouble. As a successful hedge fund CEO with 2.8 million dollars in his bank account from figuring out how to predict stocks via machine learning, his life is on a solid track. Until one dinner party, though, where he spikes a chatty guest’s drink with a hefty dose of ZzzQuil, who ends up in the hospital with a coma. Herschel dissolves into a guilt-ridden shell, suddenly finding disgust in the milk in a latte and the lamb in a shawarma, pivoting to veganism as he develops a near-instantaneous spiritual connection with animals. As his hedge fund operations take an illicit turn, Herschel becomes more unhinged as he tries to repair his steps in a ravenous search to be morally good.
One of the best new writers in America, Andrew Lipstein’s second novel The Vegan is a hazy, stream-of-consciousness exploration dissecting the difficulties of needing to be seen as good when the world is seemingly against it. Herschel is a weirdo, searching for bodega cats, wondering about a future child’s circumcision, and fervently buying a pair of lizards, but there’s truth in the oddities and desperation he possesses that makes for one of the most interesting character studies of the year.
Our Culture caught up with Lipstein to talk about productivity, veganism, and the book’s quick-paced style.
Congratulations on another phenomenal novel! Let’s talk about the obvious — this is your second novel in two years, and recently, you sold your third, to be published in 2025. How does it feel to rack up so many publications, and what’s inspired this productivity?
I had really struggled for many years to get published, so when Last Resort was published, it was a huge relief and an amazing thing for me. I had never thought it would happen — I had written five failed novels before that. And now, of course that I’ve sold one, and I have an editor and agent who like my work, it feels a lot easier, just the whole system. But to be writing my second and third novel, knowing that they’d be published, is really freeing for me. You do anything creative or artistic, you don’t want any fear during that process. And when I was writing Last Resort, part of me thought it wouldn’t get published like the others. So it feels great. And as far as productivity goes, I would have hoped to do that for the rest of my career.
The Vegan is really different from your debut, Last Resort: it takes place over about three days, and it’s mainly written in this stream-of-consciousness style where small details are magnified and we get major insight into Herschel Caine’s mind. Did this change come naturally?
Yeah, I wrote this book very quickly, and, I don’t want to say ‘feverishly’, but it did sort of match the tone of the book. I rewrote it leading up to the birth of my son, and I felt very compelled to finish it before he was born for practical reasons. Less than with Last Resort, I really wrote day and night with this. I would say I pushed myself more than I’ll ever do again, because it wasn’t an enjoyable experience for myself or my wife. But I wrote every hour I possibly could, and I wrote it in part, to maintain the momentum and tone I wanted to capture in the book itself.
Herschel is this hugely successful hedge fund CEO who relies on machine learning to target stocks and invest accordingly, and over the course of the book, we can see how artificial intelligence and future technologies could shape the finance world. How did this kind of speculative twist on economics come into the book?
I’m intensely interested in finance — I consume ungodly amounts of financial media, for some reason. I really just wanted to talk to quants, they’re called: people who run quantitative or algorithmic hedge funds. I interviewed maybe seven or eight of these guys — and they’re often guys — a few CEOs, a billionaire, just to get the language, and make it realistic and inherit their modes of thought, how they see the world, and moral issues, of course, because the book is very moral. But I spent a summer, almost three months, as long as it took me to write it, just to do research and talk to these guys, absorb their personalities, and get it right.
Attempting to impress neighbors, Herschel has a small dinner party, but a small prank he plays there has disastrous consequences, leading to an attendee’s hospital stay. While he goes into a tailspin of doubt and channels his anxiety into veganism, his wife Franny takes a somewhat practical approach, visiting Birdie in the hospital and constantly researching her condition. Was this difference in responses intentional, and how did you want to develop the extremes between them?
Actually, you’re the first person I spoke to that brought that up, and I’m glad you did. I think when something tragic happens everyone deals with it in different ways. A single person might even deal with it in different ways at different times. I think they represent two very different ways of dealing with tragedy: Herschel is repressing what he has done, and that’s a core difference between them. He has done it to Birdie and he knows it, whereas Franny is just getting over a tragedy that happened to a friend. But she does research, she doesn’t give herself a second to think, she just does, does, does. Whereas Herschel is ruminating, avoiding, trying to juggle his guilt and project it onto other things. So Franny has a much more intellectual, logical approach, and Herschel is totally emotional and moral, and I don’t think either of those ways is necessarily correct. I think to deal with tragedy, you have to deal with it in all ways and come to it very honestly. I don’t think either of them fully do that.
Herschel begins to incorporate veganism into his life through a major mental leap after seeing the sadness in a neighborhood dog’s eyes, and overthinking a lamb shawarma in a cab car. Talk a little bit about why you think his mind went to this outlet as a reservoir for his guilt.
It’s funny, because he is repulsed by food. The reader knows what he’s doing: he’s using this other part of his life to gain virtue where he’s lacking it in another. But he doesn’t ever think to himself, ‘This is a good outlet to be a good person.’ It’s just an emotional response. And I think it’s funny that our moral choices are seen as intellectual, when they could be bodily or visceral. As far as how he comes to it, at the dinner party itself, the neighbor Philip is a vegetarian, and Herschel reacts to that, feels a little stupid for not remembering that when they spoke previously, and that’s one way the idea could’ve gotten stuck in his mind.
Like I mentioned earlier, the book is written in this sort of dreamlike state, where it feels like your writing flowed without hesitation. One particular instance of this is the scene where Herschel, in a ZzzQuil-induced stupor, runs through the city late at night, eventually ending up trespassing at the zoo and standing naked in front of a red panda. Was the writing experience different from how it was previously?
I think so many of the scenes in The Vegan are emotionally driven and you sense why Herschel is doing something, but it’s never said. To achieve that in writing, you have to get across a feeling, something intangible, so it’s really about tone. Whereas in Last Resort, the narrator is somewhat unreliable, and basically uses logic to convince himself what he’s doing is right. They’re totally different ways of communicating information to the reader.
You make a pretty good case for veganism in the book, even though it’s transmitted through Herschel’s delusion, while I was reading it, I actually wasn’t sure if that was taken from your life.
I’m a vegetarian, but the irony is that being a vegetarian is probably the most morally bankrupt you could be, because whatever reason you have for being it should necessitate you being a vegan. But for a character like Herschel, there’s a lot of ideas communicated in the book that on some level, I believe in, though they might be absurd, or have a relatively radical bent to them. I really enjoyed that the most, is that as he gets more unhinged, letting him think these thoughts that a part of me believes, while another part of me thinks is a little bit crazy.
Usually I end with a question about what’s next, but like I said, we know that Something Rotten is coming in 2025. Can you talk a little bit about that book and how it’s going?
Yeah, it’s very much on my mind because I just got edits back. I’d say it’s by far my biggest plot-driven novel. There’s a huge twist, I will say, which is sort of new for me. It’s really about masculinity and authenticity, and how those terms translate between cultures. It takes place in Copenhagen, and my wife is Danish and we spend a lot of time there with her friends, who are journalists, and that’s sort of the milieu of the book. I think I’m always most excited about the book I’ve just written.
The Vegan is available now.