Colors Insulting to Nature
Cintra Wilson is possessed of a delightful logorrhea that makes you feel like maybe your best friend just did a shitload of Dexedrine and wants to tell you everything she’s ever thought about everything, except, unlike most congenital tweakers, Wilson is super-smart and, like, insightful as hell. Her debut novel is a logical extension of her freewheeling, hyperbolic essays on celebrity and American culture—she nails the sick push-pull of attraction and repulsion most of us feel toward both, tearing through her subjects with the rapacious glee of a kid who just held up a candy store.
In Colors, she’s distilled the sugar rush into a single, sometimes unlikable, but always wincingly sympathetic protagonist called Liza Normal. The daughter of a blown-out, beyond-trashy stage mother named Peppy, Liza has been groomed for song-and-dance fame of a quaintly anachronistic nature since she was old enough to strap on her mother’s high heels and warble through a Melissa Manchester hit. Pressed into highly age-inappropriate concoctions of slut-wear, she’s trotted out as a little sexpot chanteuse. When she does manage to get auditions, this getup only makes her judges embarrassed and uncomfortable; at school, her outfits and naked fame-whoring only seal her status as an outcast. Liza’s train wreck of a family is rounded out by her brother Ned, who takes the complete opposite direction from his sister’s, spending more and more time in his room until he becomes an out-and-out agoraphobe, and who ironically finds a reluctant fame as an outsider artist.
Wilson wisely avoids painting the Normals as a kitschy, white-trash sideshow; real desperation and pain creeps out on the edges of their stories. She doesn’t pull any punches, either; Peppy’s snarling abrasiveness and opportunism and Liza’s humiliating grabs at approval dangle them dangerously close to the edge of hatefulness. But the cringes their exploits induce are tinged with recognition; this is the Technicolor version of your own high-school battles and defeats, your own secret longing for fame, everything dirty you’ve ever done in the hopes of gaining love and acceptance.
Liza’s quixotic meanderings take her on an improbable and entertaining roller-coaster ride through a jumble of California subcultures: the nascent punk-rock scene of the early ’80s, the high camp of drag-queen revue theater, and a hilarious stint at a Bay Area semi-commune called Elf House. Wilson is kind enough to give her a gentle, if compromised, end, but realistic enough to abstain from making her a superstar. She lays devastating waste to the lies we all tell ourselves, tenderly replacing them with a palatable truth.