Saturday, November 19, 2005

47. Colors Insulting to Nature

by Cintra Wilson

Colors Insulting to Nature is one of those books that I first learned about by reading Pamie’s blog. The Body Project and, of course, her own are a couple of others of which I wouldn’t have known without her. I didn’t know much about Cintra Wilson’s book before I started reading it and, let me tell you, I would have never guessed it was the circus that it is. I don’t think I’ve read such a high energy, comedic catastrophe since…well…Wonder Boys comes to mind. Which is not to put it on par with Wonder Boys, because I hold Michael Chabon in such high esteem, but it was one of those stories where all this crazy stuff keeps happening and it’s like the author put their characters in the dryer, set it on spin, and watched through the little window to see what would happen. They get all banged up, but they keep going and you keep watching through that window because you can’t look away.

Colors follows the Normal family over the period of, I’d say, ten to fifteen years. I’m not entirely certain how long the story spans, but we start when Liza Normal is on the brink of adolescence and end when she’s at least 21. Liza is the main character, but we also become well acquainted with her melodramatic mother Peppy, her good-hearted grandmother Noreen, her agoraphobic brother Ned, and a whole host of boyfriends, friends, and ne’er-do-wells in between. You could say it’s a coming of age tale, but it’s more of what happens when a girl grows up with a dysfunctional mother and becomes saturated with the celebrity culture of American life.

All Liza wants is to be famous. Peppy is on her own search for infamy, but while Liza dreams of singing and acting on the big screen, Peppy is more interested in quirkier performances. She institutes the “Normal Family Dinner Theater,” a show that never actually features dinner and closes after the inaugural performance of a camped up Sound of Music. Peppy falls into a depression, drinks, gains weight, and tries vainly to win back her credibility by later opening up a drama therapy studio in the theater. Liza, who is at the mercy of her mother’s suggestive clothing choices and never realizes how trashy she looks, is a natural outcast at school. She finally finds a friend in Lorna, the girl who sits out during swim class by virtue of a note stating that she has herpes. The two are inseparable for the rest of the story, going through a forced punk phase, a stay in a house populated by druggies who believe in elf-mysticism, and the obligatory stint in rehab. Meanwhile, Ned becomes increasingly withdrawn from society and constantly wears a ski mask to cover his face. He’s immersed in his art creating light boxes and, in a fitting twist of irony, is awarded the respect and admiration he shies away from, but that Liza’s always craved.

I really, really liked this book, but if you read it and don’t, I can completely understand why. It’s grandiose and extravagant, reading like a True Hollywood Story and, sadly, probably reflects some poor person’s real life. It’s as if Wilson sat around thinking, What else can I do to these people?, and then took it even a step further. If you prefer more grounded stories, set in a believable reality, this probably isn’t the book for you. Wilson also has the habit of breaking the fourth wall and addressing her audience directly in a series of bolded passages. She comments not only on the state of her characters, but also on the culture that has led them to where they are. It’s the kind of meta-textual interruption that I usually loathe (Dave Eggers, I’m talking to you) but, for some reason, really didn’t bother me here. Actually, I quite liked it. I’m not sure why it worked for me, maybe because it didn’t happen all that often, but every time the omniscient narrator stepped in to make herself known, it just added to the hilarity of the story. These things usually don’t work for me, but this time it was great.

I’ll leave you with a quote that sticks in my mind: “High school, for most people, gets boiled down to select formative experiences that can still make the person writhe like a cold ball of worms, twenty years later.” It’s funny because, like a lot of Wilson’s words explaining these crazy people’s lives, it rings true.

2 Comments:

Blogger piksea said...

Great post! I really enjoyed your way with words and your perspective on this book.

11:31 AM  
Blogger Exxie said...

Thanks!

2:22 PM  

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