Alma (Magill Book Reviews)
Winner of the Whitbread Award for best first novel, ALMA is an extraordinary, and extraordinarily disquieting, work. Building on his earlier nonfiction study of Peter Sutcliffe, the infamous Yorkshire Ripper, Gordon Burn bases ALMA on the life of the most popular English singer of the 1950’s. The real Alma Cogan serves Burn both as an interesting subject in her own right and, more important, as a point of departure for his wry yet strongly sympathetic look at a subject Freud might have called Fame and Its Discontents. Nathanael West in DAY OF THE LOCUST (1939) and Don DeLillo in MAO II (1990) have addressed the same subject but not nearly so well and certainly not to the same devastating effect as Burn. Although the real Alma died in 1966, several years after the Beatles drove her into obscurity, Burn, in a boldly tabloid “Elvis Lives!” move, has her telling her tale exactly twenty years later. Interesting as Alma’s account of her life and times is, Burn ups the ante by having Alma tell her tale just as mass murderer Myra Hindley breaks her own twenty-year silence to confess to additional murders that she and Ian Brady had committed twenty-odd years before.
Funny at first, Alma’s narrative grows progressively grimmer and more terrifying, comedy transmogrifying into compulsion, obscurity into obsessiveness. (Good as Anthony Hopkins was as Hannibal Lecter in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Burn, a member of the British Crime Writers Association, is...
(The entire section is 337 words.)
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Alma (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Alma, winner of the 1991 Whitbread Award for best first novel, is an astonishing, deeply disquieting work. In subject it bears a certain similarity to Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son: The Story of Peter Sutcliffe (1984), Gordon Burn’s account of the Yorkshire Ripper, written from the perspective of Sutcliffe’s family and friends. In style and atmosphere, however, Alma calls to mind the phrase Donald Greiner has used to describe the fiction of John Hawkes: comic terror. This is not to suggest that Burn in any direct way imitates Hawkes, even at Hawkes’s most parodically English in The Lime Twig (1961). In fact, Burn makes no use at all of the surreal effects on which Hawkes’s fiction relies. Alma might well have been less disturbing had it been more surreal, less matter of fact.
For all of its power to disturb, Alma is also quite funny. “I always found having my picture taken with members of the public a frankly grim and, in the end, even a distressing experience,” narrator Alma Cogan says at the outset. She finds the “terrible conviviality and the unwelcome physical intimacy with total strangers” particularly distressing at a time (1954) when, thanks to continuing postwar shortages, “personal hygiene wasn’t high on everybody’s list of priorities.” Alma’s Swiftian description of women smelling of dandruff and cheap perfume and men giving off “stomach-heaving waves of...
(The entire section is 2459 words.)