Sepp Gregory is the kind of man some people would call “dimwitted”, “slow” or just plain “stupid”, but in Mark Haskell Smith’s Raw: A Love Story, he is the man everyone wants a piece of. As the star of a reality show called Sex Crib, he stole the hearts, and libidos, of millions of viewers who obsessed over his profound confessions, his on and off romance with vixen Roxy Sandoval and his rock-hard six pack, which he flaunts every chance he can.
Now, Sepp has become a literary sensation, as his first novel, “TOTALLY REALITY”, is not only igniting the bestsellers’ list but also receiving surprising critical acclaim. Who knew the dumb hunk could write? The thing is he can’t. Sepp’s book “TOTALLY REALITY” was in fact (ghost) written by an unknown guy from New York named Curtis Berman, who spends most of his time in a constant battle with himself, wondering why he became a “sell out” in his literary work, and despising Sepp for his success. “Everybody knows you wrote that book” his agent assures him, but Curtis knows that this is a lie. The people that matter (i.e., the public) don’t know that he wrote “TOTALLY REALITY”.
While Sepp becomes an even bigger star, thanks in part to Curtis’ work, Curtis is only getting rejections with his own writing. His agent offers him something even more degrading: an invitation to ghostwrite Roxy Sandoval’s first book. Curtis knows that if he does it (even if editors have promised to him that he will finally receive a public credit), he’ll finally have sold his soul to the devil, but he will also be able to afford a brownstone all his own, in which he can throw fabulous literary parties where he and his friends can mock dimwits like Sepp and Roxy.
Then there’s Harriet Post, the self proclaimed savior of literary culture, who uses her blog to condemn all that she considers worthless “drivel”, especially reality shows and their talentless stars. Even though Harriet opposes Sepp based on principle alone, things become personal when he is a guest on one of her favorite literary shows hosted by book critic Titus Goldberger, who instead of making fun of Sepp, suggests his body “could’ve been crafted by Michelangelo”, before urging him to lift his shirt and reveal his “majestic abdomen”. If even someone like Goldberger is blinded by this dumb adonis, Harriet fears the rest of the world has no chance. She decides to set off on a personal mission to unmask Sepp for the fraud he is and discover who really wrote ‘TOTALLY REALITY”.
As Sepp goes on his book tour, Curtis travels to California to meet Roxy Sandoval and Harriet seeks to fulfill her mission, their destinies will become entangled in truly unexpected ways, leading to disaster. Reading Smith’s efficient, if somewhat inelegant prose (the words “cock” and “pussy” are thrown around even more than in Fifty Shades of Grey), you get a sense that the author doesn’t seem to be aiming for the intellect. In fact if fictitious characters like Sepp and Roxy read books at all, Raw: A Love Story, is the kind of thing they would be going for. Smith details sexual encounters between his characters with the gusto of a teenager writing seedy fan-fiction, and takes pleasure in recounting Sepp’s adventures in the famous Playboy Mansion.
Yet the more Raw‘s author digs into this world of fake tans, fake breasts and faker personalities, the more you catch on to his game and eventually realize that this is in fact satire of the highest order. “Roxy Sandoval wasn’t Sophia Loren or Madonna or even Meryl Streep”, he writes, describing Curtis’ shock at realizing his new subject’s disconnect between who she is and who she thinks she is, and like the best of satirists, Smith succeeds because he knows better than to make fun of his subjects or turn them into silly caricatures. One can tell he has carved out entire lives for his characters, like when he describes Harriet feeling like a documentarian “Albert Maysles, maybe”, he elaborates, before conceding that even the brightest intellectual snobs can become victims of mass media.
For all the nerd rage Smith infuses Curtis and Harriet with, and all the bimbo “virtues” he injects into Sepp and Roxy, you can tell that he created them with precision and care. Yes, he is using his characters to deliver a harsh critique on the world of reality entertainment and the notion of becoming famous just because you’re on TV, but Raw lacks any resentment or bitterness. By delivering his ideas with the urgency and ease of a fluff magazine, Smith is pointing out how addictive this world is. His use of vulgar words and overuse of sexual situations isn’t gratuitous, but instead a meta creation; by showing to us how easy it is to be hooked by sensationalism, he is inviting us to wonder how did we get where we are.
Raw is filled with twists, one of which occurs halfway through the book and turns it into a tragicomic nightmare straight out of a David Lynch movie, all of which help point out the absurdity of modern entertainment and how we are living in times when values have become inverted. What once was good is now laughable (Sepp often wonders how he can be attracted to someone as smart as Harriet) and what used to be disregarded is now praised, but the true achievement in Raw: A Love Story, is that Smith sees this and doesn’t spit it out like venom, instead he crafts an unorthodox love story, and invites us to reconcile our brains and hearts and try to see the good in what others might think of as doom.