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In America, The Spotlight Never Goes Out

Cintra Wilson's Colors Insulting to Nature

Did you ever wear inch-thick pancake makeup and hot pants to the mall when you were twelve because you thought it made you look grown up and sophisticated? Are you still bitter that no talent scout ever discovered you and made you an instant star in the way you most certainly deserved? Cintra Wilson feels your pain.

As a playwright, screenwriter, and pop-culture pundit, Wilson has made a career observing the ragged edges of fame and those who cling desperately to it. The title of her first book says it all: A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque Crippling Disease. Now her debut novel, Colors Insulting to Nature, explores the seamy American desire for celebrity with some sympathy and hope for those who chase their dreams of the white hot spotlight, who work like dogs, try their best, and still utterly fail.

Colors Insulting to Nature tells the strange saga of the Normal family, headed by alcoholic and former topless juggler Peppy. One day in Reno, feeling at her lowest, Peppy Normal watches the movie Fame, a 1980s classic about Performing Arts High School in Manhattan. Moved to tears by the pluck and heart of these talented kids so full of life that they run out of school and dance on a taxicab, Peppy decides that her life goal is to get her two children into this school. By her boozy logic, the best way is to open a dinner theater and acting school in Marin County to give them "exposure."

What she doesn't take into account is that her two children are Ned, a teenage boy with a lazy eye and severe agoraphobia, and Liza, who has the heart and drive to make it big but unfortunately lacks even one shred of self-respect -- or talent. (You know those kids they show on the "audition" episodes of American Idol, who caterwaul tunelessly at top volume, then cry and hurl insults when they don't make the cut? That's Liza.)

Before the story is over, Liza will have experienced the highest peaks and lowest valleys in her druggy, trashy -- but at the core entirely pure -- yearning to be a capital-S Star. Liza is the poster child for what can happen when one attempts to model real life after the lessons gleaned from TV and movies, to the exclusion of all reality and common sense. As Wilson tells it, the answer to fame, the universe and everything else boils down into formulas that are half-mantra, half-math proof: "Goodness = Reward [both earthly and personal.] True Love = Possible for Everyone [via perseverance]. Proof of True Love = Personal Sacrifice. Hard Work = Golden Ticket to Fame And Reward."

These lessons, as demonstrated in cheeseball movies like Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo and Ice Castles, are Liza's holy scripture. But even with such dubious moral guides, Liza stays the course, always on the trail of her elusive golden stag, hoping it will lead her to true happiness. This pure drive is what saves Liza from buffoonery and makes her a compelling character: she goes after fame like a lover who treats her badly, something she desperately needs even though it rebuffs and hurts her at every turn.

Marin County, as rendered by Wilson, is an odd mix of snooty rich kids and houseboat-dwelling pot dealers. In the '80s, the best way to rebel against both those demographics was to go punk, which is exactly what Liza does, escaping to San Francisco. Alert Bay Area residents will know that some of the more outlandish characters and situations are in fact authentic. Liza becomes a sort of pet to a theatre troupe of wild drag queens called the Cock-A-Zoids -- similarities to S.F.'s beloved Cockettes are entirely intentional. Same goes with Zamboanga Gardens (Mabuhay Gardens in real life), the punk club/Filipino restaurant that sometimes featured bands better at mutilating themselves than playing instruments.

Colors Insulting follows in the footsteps of other long wacky post-modern novels such as Zadie Smith's White Teeth or the entire oeuvre of John Irving, packing in a zillion characters and all sorts of unexpected twists and turns that unfold over the course of at least a decade.

But similar to Smith, Wilson sets up more than she can pull off. The book spurs a lot of post-reading "refrigerator questions" that hit you as you reach for a late-night glass of O.J.: "Hang on a sec, whatever happened to the anonymous woman who wrote letters asking for flesh samples from famous young men to eat? Or Peppy's bull-riding ex, who became a woman? Where'd they go?"

With other books, these lingering questions could fester into discontent, but with Colors, tying everything up neatly is beside the point. What really counts is that several times I laughed out loud reading this book in public. I can't say that about anything else I've read recently.

Does Cintra Wilson make a biting critique of an empty culture that worships fame, or does she buy into and perpetuate that same culture? Probably both. But the last time you watched American Idol, you were buying into the spectacle as much as mocking it, too. Why else watch it? Unless you're a curmudgeon or a Unabomber, part of living in our weird, media-saturated America is acknowledgement and acceptance of its total ridiculousness. Like Peppy's boyfriend said about getting a tattoo in homage of the bull that nearly killed him, "You gotta give credit to the things that crush you." For Liza, and perhaps for Cintra Wilson herself, that thing is fame. What better way to give it credit than laugh at it?