Overwrought debut of a teenager’s messy attempts to achieve showbiz celebrity.
Wilson has debunked the cult of celebrity before, in her equally overwrought essay collection A Massive Swelling (2000). Here, the prime culprit is Peppy Normal, whose showbiz aspirations haven’t taken her beyond a topless juggling act in Reno. The movie Fame is an eye-opener, and Peppy’s mission now is to propel her two kids to stardom. Ned proves a lost cause but Liza is more malleable, though hardly more talented. We first see her looking like an “underage sex-clown” as she auditions for a TV commercial. It’s the early 1980s, and Peppy has moved the family into an abandoned firehouse in the Bay Area, ideal for amateur theatricals—the opening production of Sound of Music is so abysmal it becomes a camp hit. Meanwhile, Liza, loud, unstable and seriously uncool, is struggling with high school. Early on, she will willingly lose her virginity to her classroom tormentor in a supply closet. Wilson’s idea is to put Liza through the wringer, and she does it in prose that lurches from one gaudy hyperbole to another. Liza develops a monster-size crush on ChoCho, a Superfly drug dealer who might, in her addled judgment, be her stairway to the stars. Even though she drops out, the scenes she moves on to are high school writ large: drugs, cliques, insecurities. That goes both for the Haight, where she has a bad acid trip while living with would-be elves, and for Tinseltown, where she betrays her friends and tries to kill herself (like Peppy, years before). Her lack of autonomy might not matter if Wilson brought a fresh eye to these familiar venues, but she really doesn’t. She does ease up on Liza, however, allowing her a successful act in Vegas as “an icon of camp depravity.”
Wilson’s ambition to be a memorable satirist of pop culture is thwarted by her high-decibel prose: she needs to bring the volume down, way down.