Friday, March 30, 2012

The Dogfood Chronicles: "Speculation" by Edmund Jorgensen

A couple of weeks ago I wrote here about my pledge only to read self-published fiction in 2012, an experiment in what is known as "dogfooding," whereby an individual or company opts to use its own product in a vote of confidence. Since I have decided to make an honest attempt to self-publish my fiction (at Amazon, Smashwords, and elsewhere), I thought it was only fair that I should purchase and read the works of my self-pubbed peers, as otherwise I would be something of a hypocrite.

After announcing my intentions to eat nothing but self-publishing dogfood for an entire year, I was asked whether I was planning to review the books I read during my experiment. Fellow self-pubbed authors wished me well and wanted to follow my progress, and even people who regarded this idea as little more than a masochistic exercise in literary self-flagellation were nonetheless rather curious to see how it would turn out. Thus the Dogfood Chronicles were born.

My first review is Speculation, a literary thriller by Edmund Jorgensen. Before I proceed, however, I must confess that this book just so happens to be the self-published novel of a dear friend from college. He and I both decided to take the plunge in offering our books on Amazon around the same time. Lest I be accused of using this review to garner Edmund any undue sales advantage, however, I should point out that Speculation is currently blowing up the paid Kindle rankings in Amazon - right now he's #144 - entirely on the merits of his own storytelling.

Andrew, a struggling professor of philosophy at an unnamed Boston university, is presented with a conundrum when his best friend from college "Sothum" dies and wills him a choice between receiving ten million dollars or the contents of a sealed envelope. Does Andrew take the safe bet so that he never need worry about money again, or does he take the envelope, whose contents are a complete mystery?

While his wife Cheryl sees this as a simple decision - i.e., take the money and don't look back - she begrudgingly indulges Andrew's natural curiosity as he tries to figure out what could possibly be worth passing up a fortune. Is it even more money, or better yet the secret of Sothum's financial success, or is the envelope empty, a final cruel practical joke from beyond the grave? The fact that Sothum is implicated in the disappearance of a mutual friend (a writer named Buddy) only serves to complicate Andrew's choice.

The more that Andrew investigates into Sothum's weird and reclusive life, the deeper he finds himself drawn into a philosophical puzzle which threatens not just the stability of his marriage but his own mental health as well. Will he follow his best friend all the way down the rabbit hole to satisfy his need to know the truth at any cost, or will Andrew leave Sothum's final riddle unsolved and choose life, love, and sanity instead?

Author Edmund Jorgensen sets the bar high with his debut novel, but Speculation delivers on its promise. Jorgensen paces his story masterfully, interweaving bittersweet college reminiscences with a gradually unfolding mystery, all the while raising the emotional stakes with every chapter and new revelation. This progression is executed in such a subtle fashion that when Sothum's at-first almost sophomoric meditations on the meaning of life, chance, and fate suddenly take on a very real and truly terrifying aspect, the reader is blindsided by the transformation.

Despite these elements of suspense, Speculation is at its heart an Intellectual Bromance, in the grand tradition of Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum. Indeed, Andrew, Sothum, and their third friend Buddy are as entertainingly clever and inextricably doomed as Eco's Belbo, Diotallevi and Casaubon were. The downward spiral of intense friendship also calls to mind the philosophically rich but emotionally damaged relationship between Louis and Lestat in Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire. In a less capable writer's hands, Speculation's choice would never have been a real head-scratcher, but the author's genius is that despite yourself you can't help but find that you have been seduced by Sothum's demented brilliance in perfect lockstep with Andrew's first-person narrator. Jorgensen not only captures the cerebral intoxication and Platonic intensity that so frequently occurs in one's heady years as a young impressionable college student, but he turns them against you so expertly that you can only admire the artfulness of the betrayal.

Is there any downside to this book at all? I'll be damned if I can find one. Not only is Speculation engaging and intellectually satisfying, it is also extraordinarily well-written, edited, and professionally polished. So why isn't this book already on the shelves of your local bookstore? In private conversation, the author confided that literary agents generally had high praise for his manuscript when he made the query rounds, but even the most kindly-disposed said they'd be at a loss to market it. Their loss, to be sure!

That a book of this quality would never see the light of day is the reason I decided to take a chance on self-publishing myself, and I'm heartened that my friend Edmund has also decided to make the leap. Even if you have been lukewarm on self-pubbed authors thus far, I strongly recommend that you give Speculation a chance. If this first review in the Dogfood Chronicles is any indication of just how much undiscovered literary talent there is out there in the so-called "digital slush pile," I'm in for a very rewarding year of reading...

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