One particular image from Baked by Mark Haskell Smith, that of a young Mormon missionary in flagrante delicto with a “Megamillionaire pop-rock chanteuse,” persists in my memory. There is bondage involved. And testicle shaving. It was with this image in mind that I began Smith’s new novel, Raw: A Love Story. I hoped to find that same ribald humor, not to mention a few delightful plot twists. I wasn’t disappointed.
The day I bought Raw, I also wrote my own fiction, got my eyebrows waxed, started a contemporary literary novel by a writer who lives in Brooklyn, read a few book blogs, purchased a cappuccino made by a man in polka dotted Oxford shirt, posted a photo of my son to Tumblr, read some Dr. Seuss to that same son, and watched an episode of Millionaire Matchmaker (which, by the way, has totally gone downhill since assistants Destin and Rachel left the show). Such a rich cornucopia of experience, if I do say so myself! If your days even remotely resemble my own (and if you’re reading this, well, I bet they do), then you will find great pleasure in Mark Haskell Smith’s depiction of our contemporary diversions and obsessions, both the high and the low.
The book stars one Sepp Gregory, a reality TV star with killer abs he loves to show off. He’s just published a book — a “fictional novel” as he calls it — and it’s a megawatt hit. Of course, Sepp didn’t write the book — hell, he hasn’t even read it, he’s too busy doing crunches and obsessing about the erectile dysfunction that’s plagued him since he got dumped by one fellow cast member and then another. Sepp’s publisher hired an aspiring novelist named Curtis to ghostwrite Sepp’s masterpiece, but in this world, ghostwriting is a closely-guarded secret. In sweeps Harriet Post, the most bookish book blogger in all of book town, ready to tear the whole sordid apparatus apart. As she says to a friend, “He wrote a book? He can’t even wear a shirt.”
If the plot sounds absurd, that’s because it is, but the book’s over-the-top, swinging-from-the-chandeliers storyline is partially what makes it so entertaining. Crazy stuff happens, and it’s a joy to be inside the drama. The more technicolor the plot, the more addictive it becomes. That same addictive quality, however, threatens to turn the novel into the kind of reality TV you love to hate and hate to love. The threat is what matters here, and Smith knows it; that Raw bends in the direction of unreality but doesn’t quite complete the contortion is what makes his novel so effective. While the satirical depictions of Sepp and Harriet invite you to laugh (and laugh and laugh) at their blind spots, they don’t prevent you from feeling compassion for these people. Sepp forgets he has a mind, and Harriet forgets she has a body, and Smith presents these conundrums with a cheeky tenderness.
If all of the above isn’t enough to entice you to read this romp, how about this: Ladies and gentlemen, Raw is the first novel to namedrop The Millions! (Clearly, we have arrived.) It also mentions The Rumpus, Jacket Copy, Gravity’s Rainbow, Book Soup, Changing Hands Bookstore, Heidegger and more. Pair those references with a list of fictitious reality TV shows I’d totally watch with horror and glee, and you’ve got yourself one helluva good read.