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 dog and diesel” soon take a darker turn, thus foreshadowing the novel’s larger trajectory, a sign that worse and worst are yet to come. The unpleasantness is pervasive, but the “moor grime” casting its “smutty light” and the night sky “lit up with tea-scum” serve merely as backdrop for a violence that is rarely depicted but always lurking just below the novel’s oddly placid surface, like the “scenes of domestic mayhem” that she associates with the smells of “total strangers” who are also her fans: “children scalded, wives abused, small dogs dropped from high windows.”
The star of this celebrity novel in which real and imaginary people and events are freely mixed is its narrator and title character. Born in 1932, the real Alma Cogan was a popular English singer of the 1950’s. With the arrival of the Beatles, her career quickly declined. She died in 1966. Burn’s rendering of Alma’s background (East End Jewish) and career is vivid and convincing, in part because Alma tells her own story. Authentic in tone and perhaps in fact (though only an Alma Cogan aficionado will know for certain), Alma is also a brilliantly conceived and expertly realized fabrication. In a bold “Elvis lives!” move, Burn extends her life by twenty years. She lives on, first in prolonged professional decline and then, this time by choice, in nearly complete obscurity after moving from London to a small English village. Burn’s imitation, or appropriation, of Alma Cogan for his own novelistic purposes is in a very real sense warranted by the real Alma’s own character. Alma Cogan was, after all, herself an imitation whose string of twenty hits appropriated the songs and styles of American singers Doris Day, Teresa Brewer, Patti Page, Vaughn Monroe, and the Maguire Sisters.
Alma lives alone with the latest of her miniature Pinschers, all named Psyche, at Kiln Cottage, borrowed from a friend. The cottage is in a village that defeats her pastoral expectations and that is “really two villages, Cleeve and Coombe,” separated by water and joined only at low tide by a concrete causeway. Alma distances herself from her past in more than just a geographical sense. Realizing what she is—a has-been—and what she was—at best an icon, at worst a cliché—Alma proves to be a keen observer of her world, past and present, and of her own life, even though she acknowledges that she cannot be sure that what she remembers are events as they occurred or only as she read about them in newspapers and magazines or saw them on television. Alma’s narration is unsparing, unsentimental, and blackly humorous, especially when she discusses fame’s aftermath. An example is her description of the Dorothy Ward House, a retirement home for variety performers where her mother now resides, even though she had never been a performer. She was convinced that it was herself, rather than her daughter, Alma, who had had the career.
“The Old Pro’s Paradise,” as it used to be referred to (unironically) in the profession, is a bizarre and unnerving place to visit. Very few of its three-dozen inhabitants believe they were anything less than the toast of the town in their day. The difficulty lies in deciding which Hollywood lovely or Broadway legend, which king of comedy or matinee idol they see themselves being this week.
Occasionally, Alma’s prose becomes as extravagant as her former stage self. Sammy Davis, Jr., for example, “looked imagineered, cuboid, like a Picasso painting or an Easter Island sculpture.” To speak of Alma’s style is somewhat misleading, for distinctive as that style may be, it is not a single style at all; rather, it is a succession of voices and interpolated forms. Alma is self-revealing one moment, gossipy the next, speaking directly, then quoting from Noel Coward’s or Alan Bennett’s diaries, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack Up,” or the memoirs of “one of the old-time movie queens.” Her narrative includes song lyrics, newspaper stories, “scripts” of dialogue heard while waiting on queues or visiting the Dorothy Ward House, Jenny Holtzer message art, a Louis MacNeice poem, a stranger’s letter, the Tate Gallery’s Acquisitions Catalogue, and, shortest but perhaps strangest, a bibliographical citation for The Great Ziegfeld, “dir. Robert Z. Leonard, Prod. Hunt Stromberg, MGM, 1936; b&w,” occasioned by Alma’s noting the “striking facial resemblance” between her mother and “Fanny Brice as played by herself.”
Hardly a conventional...