Criticizing celebrity, in ‘hilarious’ ways

Cintra Wilson’s “Colors Insulting to Nature” takes on the trappings of fame

Erin Adler

Naturally, when a novel does well critically, its publishers want you to know it. They add extra pages to accommodate the words of praise, and the cover has to be redesigned so the positive adjectives of the literati will fit attractively.

A person can only read the words “hilarious” and “hysterical” on a book jacket so many times before nausea sets in, making readers want to hate the very books these critics won’t stop loving.

In the case of Cintra Wilson’s “Colors Insulting to Nature,” this reflex is strong – but the book’s colorful, lurid prose and absurd plot are engrossing enough to lure readers in and make them want to devour it from start to finish in one gluttonous gulp.

Like many authors, Wilson has a personal obsession that surfaces again and again in her writing. She is transfixed with dissecting, and criticizing, fame.

In addition to writing voluminously about the topic for Salon.com during the years, her other book, “A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-examined as a Grotesque and Crippling Disease and Other Revelations,” is a thorough exploration of celebrities, fans and the culture they create.

“Colors Insulting to Nature” takes on celebrity – and the lengths people will go in attaining it – from the perspective of protagonist Liza Normal.

Liza is a “moderately talented girl” with big dreams of becoming a star, inherited from her mother, Peppy. Along with her traumatized brother Ned and a bevy of gay and transsexual allies, Liza endures rejection time and again, from the small-time auditions she attends posing as an oversexed 13-year-old to the later rebuffs of her adolescent crushes. The result is darkly comedic; the influences of Hunter S. Thompson and what Wilson calls his “toothy” use of language are immediately apparent.

The power of Wilson’s story, which is dismissible in the beginning as simple comedy, increases exponentially as her characters age. By the time Liza is 20, she’s living in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, doing drugs and living what might be euphemized as an “alternative lifestyle.”

Wilson’s prose shines most brightly in this middle portion of the novel. When she explains the allure of the area, her sentences are the passionate, adjective- and adverb-laden kind of run-ons that send English teachers running for the red pen: “Generations of young people had come to the cosmic whirlpool, ingested strange substances and found themselves sucked through interdimensional wormholes into alternate universes, paranoid schizophrenia and Nietzsche-delic spin-cycles of Eternal Return that sucked away all their money and sent them home to live with their parents.”

As the novel progresses, the familiar pattern of failure in Liza’s life depresses her – and the reader, too. If her traumas did not have such outlandish (and historically detailed) contexts – she lands in rehab, literally, after flying from a tree, convinced she is Tinkerbell – readers might be tempted to give up on Liza and her seemingly nonexistent learning curve.

But somehow, despite the sex, drugs and self-loathing, we keep rooting for her.

In fact, Wilson says in the special interview section (another feature of the critically acclaimed paperback), it is in Liza’s tendency to make the same mistakes that the book is most autobiographical.

Though it’s hard to imagine wordsmith Wilson failing at a level comparable to Liza, it is comforting to know that even nearly perfect prose requires a few rounds of editing before the mistakes disappear and it is deemed “hilarious” on its covers.

Three times, that is.