"Colors Insulting to Nature "
(Reviewed by Olivia Boler DEC 19, 2004)
In Colors Insulting to Nature, a cleverly titled new novel by pop culture authority Cintra Wilson, we are introduced not only to an engaging yet flawed heroine, but to a contemporary social commentary on what is afflicting much of the youth of today: the overwhelming and destructive desire for fame. Liza Normal, ironically named, is a sweet-natured girl growing up in the 1970’s and 80’s who wants one thing above all else—celebrity. Raised on a steady diet of television sitcoms, movies, and after-school specials, Liza buys into the modern fairytale myth: fame equals happiness. As the novel’s all-knowing narrator, who often steps in to speak directly to the “Gentle Reader” points out, “ Can any of us say we have not been brainwashed to believe that if we adequately perform the prescribed mambo steps laid out on the Hollywood life-template floor mat, we will earn our heavenly reward on earth?” Instead of being content with an ordinary life, Liza, like many of her contemporaries, believes such a fate leads only to a spot in Loser-dome.
Liza seems doomed from the get-go. Her alcoholic mother Peppy is a former topless juggler from Reno who feeds the fires of her daughter’s dream while sabotaging it with her antics; Liza’s father, a dentist, leaves his family early in the game; her older brother Ned is a shy, socially awkward boy who, after being beaten by some of their high school’s popular kids, turns to agoraphobia; and her grandmother Noreen is a kindly woman who has very little influence over the whims of the Normal clan. Peppy, after a failed relationship, moves her family from Reno to Fairfax, California, a hippy enclave in affluent Marin County just north of San Francisco. She befriends a gay couple, Ike and Mike, and converts a dilapidated firehouse into the Normal Family Dinner Theatre, which is actually a cover for Peppy to follow her own ambition of being a star. The problem is, Peppy has no talent for singing, dancing, or acting beyond topless juggling. Despite that, she operates the theatre as a drama camp for Marin County’s children, children with, unsurprisingly, the same dreams as Liza. Peppy also hopes to get Liza into the School of the Arts in New York, aka the “ Fame School.” Needless to say, through a series of brutal mishaps—one being a disastrous yet sadly funny and campy production of “The Sound of Music”—this dream does not materialize.
What does materialize is the cruelty of Liza’s peers, and the unforgiving posture of those with power. Despite her best efforts to win them over, Liza does not fit in with the Marin kids—her clothes, her openness, her embarrassing mother—all these things shut the doors to acceptance by the mainstream, as well as to any rare opportunities for her singing career. (Liza is a belter in the vein of Barbra Streisand, although the songs she sings are more along the lines of Lisa Lisa; it is the 1980’s, after all.)
As a result of all this rejection, Liza hardens—she goes punk, develops an attitude, and falls in with a parade of drug dealers, transvestites, pagans, and bondage tweakers in San Francisco. Each, in his or her own way, lusts for the glamorous life as much as Liza does. Despite appearing to move farther away from her goal, Liza shares with her mother a tenacity and ambition that keep her soul intact. In the end, Liza winds up with a version of her heart’s desire as well as a recognition of the fallibility of the celebrity-equals-happiness formula. Written in a zany, engorged style, Colors Insulting to Nature is a testament to a generation that in many ways has lost its soul’s compass and is searching for a way back to it.
- Amazon readers rating: from 19 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Colors Insulting To Nature at HarperCollins.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Colors Insulting to Nature (August 2004)
- A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Reexamined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease and Other Cultural Revelations (August 2000)
- Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny (October 2008)
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- The official website for Cintra Wilson
- Book Slut interview with Cintra Wilson
- CulturePulp interview with Cintra Wilson
- Salon.com articles by Cintra Wilson
- January Magazine review of A Massive Swelling
- Curled Up review of Colors Insulting to Nature
- Mirror review of Colors Insulting to Nature
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About the Author:
Cintra Wilson is a pop culture pundit whose column for Salon.com and collection of essays, A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque Crippling Disease, have garnered her a cult following. An award-winning playwright and screenwriter, she has seen her work produced by Tim Robbins's Actor's Gang theater company in Los Angeles, Naked Angels in New York, and MTV, where her creation Winter Steele was a long-running segment of Liquid Television. Originally from San Francisco, she now lives in New York City.