The subtitle of Cintra Wilson's essay collection A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined As A Grotesque Crippling Disease might have made a good alternate title for her lacerating comic novel Colors Insulting To Nature, if only things went better for her stargazing heroine. Raised on a crash diet of triumph-over-adversity storylinesher favorites are Ice Castles and Fametrailer-trash dreamer Liza Normal believes she's not only destined for celebrity, but entitled to it. To her mind, whatever terrible obstacles litter her Yellow Brick Road will just make her achievements seem that much more unlikely and inspiring, making them great fodder for the talk-show circuit and revenge for all the sleazebags who wronged her along the way. At first, Wilson seems to believe in the Hollywood formula, too: She repeatedly beats the poor girl down, but each humiliation only fortifies Liza's resolve, setting her up for a hard-won victory in the end. And yet Wilson can't stop herself from meting out more punishment, which leads the book into ever darker and funnier corners of semi-stardom, where has-beens debase never-weres in a vicious hierarchy of abuse.
As Liza comes of age in the '80s, her dreams are nourished by her boozy mother Peppy, who throws everything she has into converting a firehouse into the Normal Family Dinner Theater, a suburban San Francisco performance workshop and stage. Its debut production of The Sound Of Music turns the wholesome musical into a tawdry, obscene piece of camp, prompting a local critic to speculate that it was, like Peter Weiss' Marat/Sade, "performed by criminally insane prison inmates under the direction of the Marquis de Sade." While natural talent redeems a few of her peers, Liza's tarted-up cabaret act gets her nowhere, especially in high school, where the rich and beautiful kids exploit her naked desire for popularity. Without an identity beyond her crazed ambition, Liza cycles through one extreme personality after another, from the world's only hardcore punk who loves Neil Sedaka to a Haight-Ashbury acid-freak on a mystical journey. Meanwhile, her half-cracked older brother Neda shut-in who covers his face in a ski mask and never speaksgets that elusive Big Break when his old-fashioned light-boxes win him acclaim as an outsider artist.
Wilson's history as a free-swinging Salon culture essayist occasionally leads her to hit the nail too squarely, but for all its obvious points about the dangers of celebrity obsession, Colors Insulting To Nature compensates with a spectacularly vivid, day-glo tour through the fringes. Wilson treats the hopelessly malleable Liza like a Barbie doll that adjusts to radical new styles and poses: a coffeehouse singer who performs karaoke covers of Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, a "Slash Fiction" author who concocts sex fantasies around a leather-bound S&M vixen, a pusher's girlfriend decked out in pimp white, and a codependent who gloms onto a washed-up boy-band star in rehab. Hard-headed and foolish as she is, Liza has an innocence that persistently redeems her throughout the many rounds of degradation, to the point where readers may just wish her Ice Castles fantasies will come true. Wilson lays out this possibility like a bear trap, but her inner sadist reaches a compromise with the gods of narrative, resulting in an ironic fate that satisfies everyone.