The snake has at last swallowed its own tail and postmodern fiction has found a defining moment. Literature found postmodernism in 1961 with Thomas Pynchonís novel V and is characterized by an indistinction between high and low art, parody and irony, celebration of ambiguity, regurgitation and assimilation of previously original work, a preoccupation with the organization of knowledge (not what you know, but how you know it), and a rebellion against consumer capitalism. As such, Cintra Wilsonís novel Colors Insulting to Nature (HarperCollins 2004), serves as a sort of meta-postmodern fiction.
From the moment ten-year-old Liza Normal is awestruck by the movie Ice Castles, she dreams of the glory of stardom. Unfortunately, Liza is not the sort of girl who becomes famous. Vulgar in both looks and personality, Liza is saddles with a maniacally ambitious stage mother and devoid of any marketable talent. Propelled through her motherís bizarre homegrown performing arts boot camp, her stage debut in The Sound of Music is an unqualified disaster that serves only to label Liza a freak at her suburban San Francisco high school. But Liza has one talent of which she is not aware Ė an indomitable ability to bounce back fighting from any setback or humiliation, no matter how devastating, by sheer force of will. Through failed love affairs, drug experimentation, New Age religious adventures, and searing rejection, Liza finally discovers that she is a much stronger and better person than the starlet she thought she wanted to be.
Colors Insulting to Nature is easily one of the funniest black comedies of the last decade. The entire price of the book in hardcover is alone worth the deconstruction of the 1978 smarm-fest that was Ice Castles (Columbia TriStar Pictures). I challenge anyone to get through Lizaís trials at her motherís summer theatre camp without laughing hard enough to wet themselves. The campís delightfully bizarre production of The Sound of Music is Barbara Robinsonís The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (HarperCollins 1972) for grown-ups.
Wilsonís novel is certainly metafiction. Self-conscious narrative interruptions point out the readerís expectation of particular plot devices. Wilson uses this brilliantly to mock the very same tortured tango that she herself is dancing. Liza story contains subtlely hideous intimations of modern Hollywoodís best-known templates Ė not just Ice Castles, but Carrie (by Stephen King, published by Random House in 1974 and adapted for film in 1976 by Lawrence D. Cohen), Pretty Woman (Touchstone Pictures 1989), and The Wizard of Oz (by L. Frank Baum, self-published in 1900 and adapted for film in 1939 by MGM Studios), among others.
Despite Wilsonís unapologetic inflations of reality, Liza is an utterly human, sympathetic, and believable character. Her indestructibility masks such a completely credible vulnerability that itís impossible for anyone with a heart not to have it break for her even as weíre gasping with laughter at her irreverently contrived escapades.
Wilson uses Lizaís story to ingeniously illustrate the uniquely postmodern insanity of personalities sewn together like Frankenstein from Hollywood prototypes, all stemming from a neurotic black hole where oneís sense of self ought to be. Our media-saturated culture has fed us on these prototypes with an unrealistic vision of what life and love should look like. Wilsonís novel posits that the source of our Western existential crisis is the resulting void of self-awareness when we swallow the big screenís lessons uncritically. As such, Lizaís life serves as a recapitulation of the entire modern search for meaning Ė fame, love, sex, drugs, psychotherapy, consumerism, and marketable fad religions like Wicca and born-again Christianity.
Colors Insulting to Nature is not for the faint of heart, but is unspeakably worth the ride. If I could give this book more than five stars, I would.