Who will be the next American Idol? Who will The Donald pick to be his apprentice? Who wants to be a millionaire? You do. I do. It's part of our national psyche, from Star Search going back to Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts and Major Bowes' Amateur Hour. We all think our thimbleful of talent would magically expand to fill the stage or screen if only we had the drive and the lucky break to propel us into the stratosphere of Superstardom.

Liza Normal, the heroine of Cintra Wilson's debut novel, Colors Insulting to Nature, is no different. Born to a dentist absentee father and a dervish of a stage mom, Liza soon develops a sense of ambition as wide as Ruben Studdard's waistline. Unfortunately, her talent was not inherited in equal measure. Her trail from high school social outcast to self-made punk to high-camp dominatrix is a massively comic and intensively poignant character study in the effects of repeated failure as a crucible.

Wilson shifts effortlessly between dispassionate observer and existential philosopher as she documents Liza's ab-Normal life. Her spot-on depiction of celebrity culture, "the momentary cash-cults that formed whenever the mass attention-span swung unpredictably onto something and stuck for more than more than three seconds," is both bracing and disturbing. Are we really all that shallow? Well, yes, we are. In Liza's journey to own her mediocrity and exploit her marginal gifts, Wilson holds up a mirror to all the wannabes and could-have-beens. As she observes in the epilogue, "Human beings can't stand for too much happiness in their lives; it's not as interesting or educational as the Obstacles." Thane Tierney stokes "the star making machinery behind the popular song" in L.A.

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