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In 'The Vegan,' a refreshing hedge-fund protagonist

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

It's a widely accepted truth that hedge-fund protagonists generally aren't interesting. They're too rich for their problems to resonate. Their actual job is often nebulous and complicated and therefore boring. They're almost impossible to make sympathetic. Or, alternatively, they're cartoon villains.

But Andrew Lipstein's effort in The Vegan is fresh and inventive. The hedge-fund-managing main character, Herschel Caine, is preoccupied with the successful launch of his fledgling firm, the renovation of his brownstone, and cultivating a friendship with his fancy neighbors. At a dinner party in service of the latter, he pours NyQuil into the drink of an annoying and jetlagged guest, named Birdie, who later falls and suffers a traumatic brain injury — he's rendered a person with an animal name vegetative. That's the catalyst for a sudden physical disgust at consuming animals.

As his firm's prospects look unfathomably great and also kind of fall apart at the same time, Caine begins to spiral. Language starts to lose meaning, form. He buys two lizards and obsesses over them instead of the increasingly urgent needs of his firm and family. He dissociates: The book switches from first person to third for a fitful, fast apogee; when he calms, it's back to first person.

In Lipstein's sophomore effort he achieves the difficult feat of realistically animating a hedge fund manager who talks and moves as real hedge fund managers do, or might, but who is compelling and not overly alienating. While Caine's aspirations are still unrelatable and inaccessible to almost everyone, they're painted so sincerely they feel credible, especially alongside his insecurities. Lipstein achieves another feat with his descriptions of financial-world machinations — they're lucid and immediate, and the obscene wealth they throw off is refreshingly obscene — appealing, but lurid.

Happily, the financial market references generally check out — an early name drop of the real, actual hedge fund Renaissance Technologies signals that Lipstein will not be dealing in cliche or just guessing. The writing is lilting, grandiose, dense, run-ons full of action and metaphor. It reads like if Martin Amis wrote Money about a more distinguished salesman or, at times, as an F. Scott Fitzgerald-esque commentary on the violence of class. In only a few overwrought moments did it spill past the point of good taste. (One heavy handed moment: when a character shares a physical condition called "rumination," in which they vomit back up food to consume it again. We were far too many densely-packed pages in; I was too tired for this new metaphor. Digesting once would have been better.)

The narrative arc is about "relentless human progression and our resulting departure from nature," the evolution from animal to human being to machine and the violence of imposed order, the violence necessary for dominance. This theme manifests throughout, in language and narrative and numbers and manners and hierarchy and markets. Caine finds himself fighting to move backwards, to shed form, to feel alive, even as his work is pushing humankind towards the next phase, "a world where we too would be part of nature language did not need." His firm has discovered ways to read the stock market using machine learning that will allow them to predict stock market moves — realigning the meaning of the market and marking another stage of evolution, where machines no longer need us.

Caine's slippery grip on — and then loss of — language comes as good news, a liberation, as he fights the forward motion of his own work. It's a useful meditation as artificial intelligence and machine learning start to filter into our everyday via established robo-advisors and the more novel ChatGPT term paper. Lipstein asks us to investigate what's harmed and what's lost in our relentless progression, and what sacrifices might be necessary to stop the forward march.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Childs (she/her) is a co-host and correspondent for NPR's Planet Money podcast. Before joining the team in 2019, she was a senior reporter at Barron's magazine, where she covered the alternatives industry, the bond market and capitalism. Before that, she worked at the Financial Times and Bloomberg News. She's written about the pioneering of new asset classes like time, billionaire's proposals to solve inequality and diversity and discrimination in the finance industry. Before all that, she was also a Watson Fellow, spending a year traveling the world painting portraits. She graduated from Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, with a degree in business journalism and an honors thesis comparing the use and significance of media sting operations in the U.S. and India.