The profuoundly gifted Cintra Wilson is the Roland Spring of modern cultural criticism--"rare, supreme and without context, like a zebra born in an abandoned grocery store." Certain writers are so adept at language and acute in their observations on life, and the modern world, you find yourself unconsciously imitiating their form of expression--not because you want to steal their thunder but because their prose is so resonant and inspiring that it's subliminally altered your consciousness. Although very few can do it as gracefully and with such rapier wit as Wilson. I've only read a few essays from _A Massive Swelling_ previously, but I was similarly stunned at the breadth of her pop culture savvy and her strikingly original, eloquent and hilarious writing style. I was so sad when the novel ended, I'll need to begin reading the essay collection as soon as possible.
_Colors Insulting to Nature_ is a scathing yet deeply heartfelt story of a moderately, if unexceptionally, talented teen would-be chanteuse with ambitions of fame bordering on Faustian--willing, in effect, to sell nearly every molecule of self-respect she's been dubiously endowed with by her boozy, self-absorbed and delusional train wreck of a mother. Peppy Normal's parenting skills are questionable to say the least, but she does manage to pass on to Liza the legacy of dreams and values gleaned directly from sappy/"inspirational" movies, a masochistic bloodlust for attention in all its debasing forms, a desire to immerse oneself in the world of artifice, and a taste for garish eye makeup. A class-A vicarious-living stage mom, she tries to brutally impose the song-and-dance act on Liza's brother Ned, who is pathologically anxious, socially withdrawn and hopelessly uncoordinated.
The narrative follows Liza, first wobbling precariously in ridiculous spike heels at 14; stomping defiantly in kickass steel-toed combat boots at 16; fluttering barefoot as a strung-out sprite in a hallucinogenic reverie at 21; and sauntering in dominatrix-lite fetish footwear at 23, down her pothole-addled Yellow Brick Road toward self-discovery (although the character would rightfully roll her eyes and spit out some type of withering invective at that statement).
Her quest for true love is arguably even more tunnel-visioned than her quest for fame--and what is that longing for fame, really, except universal and unconditional acceptance and love?--which takes her through a number of wretchedly compelling affairs, from an adolescent love/hate banter with a wealthy young rogue to a slick hustler with a Pygmalion complex to a fallen boy-band idol, while she pines for her formative Ideal Object, the fantastically talented and magnetic Roland Spring, whose true, effortless star quality she emulates as much as envies.
Liza, a deeply flawed but very sympathetic protagonist (and not just because this reviewer had similar, ahem, Star Search pretentions in the early 80's) suffers humilation upon humilation in her naive pursuit of the Dream, but remains doggedly resilient throughout the story. In Liza's ability to pick herself up and continue the journey against all (painfully realistic, not film-contrived) odds, she ultimately bests the "winners never quit" cliches of her beloved Hollywood tripe.
For one to write so astutely about cultural phenomena large and small (her synopsis of 80's "Streetsploitation" film _Breakin'_ was one of the many, many laugh-out-loud vignettes), one has to have presumably spent a little time deep in the belly of the beast. Wilson would be worthwhile reading even if she only dealt in brilliant, highly detailed deconstructions of movies, sitcoms, bands, and subcultures, but that's the tip of the iceberg. The novel succeeds as so such more than a GenX coming-of-age story because those pop-culture digressions, however ingenuous and funny, embellish larger themes such as the search for one's identity, conflicted relationships with family, the paradox of "being true to oneself" and having no idea what that IS, the mythology created and perpetuated by the media, and the complicated nature of love. The supporting characters are also fleshed-out and interesting, and it's nice to see their lives outside the filter of Liza's basically good-hearted and smart but somewhat self-involved perspective.
My only very minor criticism is that in setting the novel in the not-so-distant past (the story spans 1984-1993), certain details--fashions, slang expressions, cultural icons, technology and the like--are a little jumbled at times, which could have been sniffed out by an obsessive pop-cuture geek/ fact checker. That's minutae, however. This was an excellent read from one of the brightest, um, stars, on the literary scene.