Review – Wilson, “Colors Insulting to Nature”

Cintra Wilson, “Colors Insulting to Nature” (2004) – This was a big, delightful surprise. This book came on my radar when I was looking into Montgomery McFate, the founder of the Human Terrain Project, a Pentagon effort to put social scientists into the field to support counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a bloody farce, as most things in those wars were. The media blitz around McFate as the program spun up added insult to injury, with a lot of emphasis on her credentials as a Bay Area punk in the eighties, raised on a houseboat by beatniks, theory geek, affecting punk style into her middle-aged aughts… one of the puff pieces brought up that a character based on her features in this novel by her friend Cintra Wilson, who upon googling turned out to be a sort of op-ed writer/style critic/general writing person. So when I decided I would write about Gen X literature for this year’s birthday lecture, I thought, perfect- a bridge between Gen X literary cynicism and support for our imperial wars, probably a piece of shit in literary terms, too. Maybe there’d be a cameo from John Dolan, aka the War Nerd, who in a very strange convergence dated McFate back when!

Well, “Colors Insulting to Nature” is none of that. The closest comparison I can make is to “A Confederacy of Dunces,” and that’s high praise. It’s a little too cute and self-aware (and, let’s be real, less relatable to me- you’ll see why) for it to quite scale the pedestal Dunces sits on for me, but it was a surprisingly great read. The story of the Normal family (you can see why I might have been rolling my eyes going in), particularly Liza Normal, and its efforts to make good with the one god that they can adhere to: fame, being on tv. Living on an arc between Las Vegas and Marin County north of San Francisco, the Normals are uniquely ill-equipped for their mission, lacking pretty much everything you would want for pre-ironic, mass-media late twentieth century fame other than one thing: “the tenacity of the cockroach,” as that one book called it. 

The book opens with Peppy Normal driving Liza, maybe age eleven or thirteen, to a hopeless audition for a commercial. Maybe I’ve been doing too much generational reading — which is ironic because a lot of the point in my lecture is about how generational analysis sucks — but I feel like in a book by a millennial author, the audition would be about how hard Liza tried to meet an impossible standard, and then either she fails (due to some certified injustice, maybe) or succeeds to find that success isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Wilson does not do that. Liza’s audition is a train wreck, partially due to lack of talent, but mostly because the Normals are possessed with a very specific idea of fame, beauty, and glamor, an extraordinarily tacky pastiche of better-forgotten post-fifties over-sexed fashions and phrasings, so that little Liza makes some profoundly uncomfortable performances without even knowing it.

I dwell on this audition scene to show that this novel is about the subject of so many great works of humor: miscommunication. In this case, the Normals don’t want to communicate anything so prosaic as ideas, or even desires. They have visions in their heads, differing but converging in some key areas, of glory, light, love, the limelight dream (agoraphobic older brother Ned even makes Liza an actual limelight at one point, not an easy technical feat). Perhaps the most important structural prop in Liza’s dreamscape comes from an almost forgotten subgenre of movies about street youth whose natural talent and authenticity propel them to fame by just doing what they do- perhaps the only well-known artifact of this wave of media is the musical actually called “Fame.” Needless to say, their peculiar aesthetics would be hard to get across in any event. But based as they are in a “dinner theater” in Marin County, they have a singular incapacity to instantiate their visions. The harder either mother or daughter try, the more humiliatingly they fail, and the more they only attract dregs drawn by similarly deeply sincere but inane visions to their productions.

There’s a lot more incident in this book than I could cover here. The future Montgomery McFate comes up during Liza’s terrible time in high school, as Lorna, the reliable friend who introduces her to punk rock. Punk does form something like an alternative to the world of chintz and glitz, and, for a subculture that was still pretty oppositional back then, something like a stable platform of values (and a way to rebel against Peppy). But Liza can’t quite rid herself of the fame dream- that she could get revenge in some spectacular way (arguably punk’s most fundamental dream), or when that fails, an LSD-and-TV inspired dream of ultimate purity and cleanliness, where her shining whiteness (not directly racialized, but not not racialized, if that makes sense) can’t help but draw in worshipping masses.

The San Francisco portions of the book keeps up the pace of amusing incident and is also of some historical use in the bargain, I’d argue. We sometimes act like “the sixties” (metonym: hippies) kind of shifted into “the eighties” (metonym: yuppies) and “the seventies” (metonym: disco? Pet rocks?) was sort of the stomp on the clutch and yank of the e-brake that facilitated a sudden and complete transformation. But of course, it wasn’t quite that way. It wasn’t just aging acid casualties trying to hold on to some dream of counterculture, deep into the eighties, certainly not in the Bay Area. Probably my favorite section is where Liza and Lorna fall in (for the classic reason- cheap rent) with a group of the sort of DnD players your psychologist warned you about, the kind who take a lot of acid and genuinely think they’re elves. This was before nerddom — many of the subcultures I grew up with as relatively discrete categories, and which are now dissolving into the internet — gelled, and confused ex-football players looking for meaning could actually think learning Sindarin and growing their hair was a good way to get laid. The elf house gets into a three-way conflict with some techno-music alien enthusiasts and some gothy wannabe vampires. This is funny enough on its own, made funnier by the historical dynamic- we know, Wilson would have known almost twenty years ago, that these lifestyles aren’t avant-garde, they’re jokes, and soon they’ll be seen as reasonably wholesome hobbies. But only the goths on this tableau have even the slightest capacity for irony. The ex-jock elf leader keeps telling Liza she hasn’t had the vision that would allow her to be true otherkin. She has her own vision during a three-way drug-addled subculture melee in Golden Gate park, and goes back to pursuing fame.

Irony plays an interesting role, here. Wilson, who makes occasional asides to the reader, relates Liza’s failures but never entirely dismisses her vision. Her ludicrous TV dreams are no better or worse than what animates most of us, Wilson insists. Still and all, what saves Liza — and, eventually, Peppy — is irony and queers. Queer people, mostly trans women and gay men, hovered all around the story and the creative efforts of both Liza and Poppy. They provide a certain degree of sympathy — and once the Normals’ productions become ridiculous enough (to a certain extent due to mother-daughter rivalry), a certain amount of buzz, an unwanted and ambivalent form of fame for two women who desire mainstream appreciation, but something. It’s a desperate last resort that Liza starts writing queer erotic fan fiction. In this pre-internet time, you could make money doing that! This is what saves her and her mom in the end, that and a well-timed move away from overly-pretentious California and onto the self-aware, take it or leave it Las Vegas of the mid-1990s.

I’ve known people who thought Gen X basically invented irony, and that irony, essentially, invalidates history. Wilson doesn’t go that far. But it provides a sort of, err, fairy godfather, if you will, a role similar to that of kismet in the Arabian nights, that will allow one with enough persistence and luck to survive and even thrive. It’s not quite happily ever after for Liza (it might be for Lorna, who drives off east with her fiancée- and unless John Dolan was ever a tattoo artist, I’m not sure there’s a cameo there). It’s close enough. These endings are always weak points for these misprision novels, but like Confederacy of Dunces, the ending here, while not the best part of the book, does what it needs to do. All in all, a very pleasant surprise of a book, and I think a good and fun source for insight into the end of the twentieth century in the US. ****’

Review – Wilson, “Colors Insulting to Nature”

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