Mark Haskell Smith

The cover of "Raw: A Love Story" by author Mark Haskell Smith. (Grove Atlantic)

It's impossible to count how many times literature has died. In the last century alone, it's been killed by radio, television, comic books, video games and, most recently, the Internet. Literature is like Mr. Ratchett from the book (or movie, if you prefer) "Murder on the Orient Express" — one corpse and a whole lot of murderers.

At least that's the impression you'd get from reading the hand-wringing think pieces that appear each year eulogizing not just the publishing industry but the fate of art as we know it.

In his fifth novel, "Raw: A Love Story," Los Angeles author Mark Haskell Smith takes a look at one of literature's would-be killers and two book-loving true believers who refuse to let it go without a fight.

Sepp Gregory, the shallow star of reality television series such as "Love Express" and "Sex Crib," is preparing to embark on a book tour for his novel "Totally Reality," a barely fictionalized memoir. The book becomes a huge hit, which irks Curtis Berman, who ghostwrote it, and Harriet Post, a literary blogger and purist who resents Sepp's intrusion onto her turf.

Harriet meets Curtis after trying to crash one of Gregory's bookstore events. Things don't end well, and soon she and Sepp are on the lam together, each reconsidering everything he or she thought about literature and each other.

The plot is, to put it mildly, gleefully absurd, and in the hands of a less experienced writer, the novel could have turned into an exercise in stereotyping and score-settling. But Smith manages to keep a (somewhat) straight face throughout, which turns what could have been just an amusing book into an incisive, caustic and hilarious one.

It helps that Smith resisted the urge to make his characters likable — they're all equally obnoxious in their own ways, though none is quite a lost cause. Sepp is about as smarmy as one would expect from a reality TV celebrity, and he thinks mostly with his genitals. But he also reluctantly displays glimpses of humanity, as when he muses about the advantages of reality TV: "It was all about getting in touch with your feelings. When you finally saw it on TV, the editors had somehow made sense of it. … Like you know who you are and all your emotions and feelings and thoughts actually add up to something. It's not like that in real life."

Then there's Harriet, who's a snob but a noble one. She idolizes an NPR book critic who "didn't just review books or interview authors, he 'engaged with the text' and had the ability to 'limn psychological truth' from the most impenetrable subtext." She's also a novelist, but her first book (published by "the University of Central South Dakota Press") sold only a handful of copies. She's more known for her Internet presence as a frequent essayist for literary websites like the Rumpus and the Millions.

Sepp and Harriet are easy targets, and Smith does have a great time mocking them, but he never goes for the kill. It's modern American literary culture that he fixes his sights on, and as uncomfortable as it is for those of us who make a living on it, his observations are more often than not dead-on.

"Wasn't the Internet just an echo chamber?" Harriet thinks. "Weren't the literary blogs just a loop of self-aggrandizement? Writers writing about writing and writers so that someone would notice and give them a book deal to write for other writers."

It's a cynical view of the literary scene, to be sure, but it's not totally inaccurate — and it's a bit of a miracle that Smith is able to mock it without seeming angry or entitled. He's able to pull it off because his prose is so hard-boiled and self-assured — he comes across as the slightly more well-adjusted offspring of Hunter S. Thompson and James Ellroy. It's odd to say this about a book so existentially pessimistic, but it's one of the most generous literary satires to come around in quite a while.

There's no doubt that "Raw" is going to spark discussion in the literary blogosphere, however, and it's probably not going to be pretty. Money and fame have always been fraught issues in both publishing and criticism, and battle lines get drawn between big-publishing apologists and champions of the small and literary daily. Smith, to his credit, comes down decisively on neither side — he's conflicted and ambivalent with what seems like both admiration and frustration at both groups.

It's a bitter pill of a book, to be sure, but it's also a hilarious and — occasionally — an unexpectedly sweet illustration of why we write and read in the first place. Literature doesn't need to be saved; it just needs to save us from ourselves.

Schaub is a book critic whose work has appeared in many of the same places as Harriet Post's.


Raw
A Love Story

Mark Haskell Smith
Black Cat/Grove: 352 pp., $15 paper