Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Gordon Burn's "Alma": Book Review

This ambitious if uneven novelization of the aftermath of a once-famous singer, the real-life Alma Cogan, departs of course from the truth that she died in 1966. Here, she lives three decades past her prime, into 1986, and she's therefore able to intersect, indirectly, with another formerly (in)famous British woman, the Moors Murderess Myra Hindley, who twenty years after the child-killing crimes under prison guard leads detectives to a couple of the last remaining bodies never found. As Newcastle-born Burn's the author of an earlier non-fictional account of Peter Sutcliffe, "The Yorkshire Ripper," one assumes his interest in such Northern tragedies attracted him-- I'm not sure if the particularly upsetting sonic link that the final pages of the novel here connects actually happened to tie Alma with Myra, again indirectly.

I'd add that while the British cover played up the Myra-Alma pairing, giving them both equal billing, so to speak, as large pop-art photos, the hardcover American edition, despite its very lurid and less successful hip-60s illustration-- the effect looks like chick-lit trash-- does avoid a rather misleading marketing impression that the Moors Murders share the plot. (The U.S. paperback reveals little, as if expecting American ignorance as to its eponymous subject.) Myra's return to the public eye's only peripherally registered a couple of times in the novel, until near the end for an off-kilter scene, but one still, thankfully for me, rather "off-stage" and reported as if second-hand. Anything more would reveal too much about the climax.

In a detached authorial tone at odds with its vividly described details, the book manages no matter how much is fiction and how much fact to ingeniously contrive situations where Alma confronts, thirty years on, the ghosts of her past. Artist Peter Blake, in the days before the Sgt. Pepper's album cover established his pop-culture prominence, already had done a wonderful depiction of Alma in two guises, and this is reproduced on the flyleaf of the hardcover. It's necessary to have this artwork nearby as you read Alma's encounter with it in the bowels of the Tate Gallery. Burn provides a poignant, yet honestly rendered, confrontation of the woman at fifty-four looking at her celebrated visage from the height of her career: two pop artists facing each other, again indirectly.

Alma later muses about this while browsing a collector's plethora of her own images. "Flash photography is forbidden in galleries because every picture taken apparently jolts loose a particle of pigment. And that's how I have always felt about being on the wrong end of a camera-- that some small part of me is flaking off; becoming detached and appropriated." (189) This aspect, the subject losing control of her own self, the duplication of her body, the sale to others, lurks as the most intriguing aspect of this complex, if perhaps too diffused, narrative.

This stand-off prepares one for the encounter with a collector,"F McL.," who sets up the climax of this oddly paced, wobbly, unpredictable unfolding of events half-explained by Alma in what purports to be a memoir. I doubt if any celebrity has ever been as ruthlessly candid as she's shown to be in these supposedly revealing pages, but much of the delight of this challenging narrative unfolds in the backdrop. Burn's evocation of the tatty nightclubs, off-stage glitz, and tawdry deals that cemented in a pre-Beatles Britain pop stars together with the older music-hall tradition lingers, the morning after the debauch. And that, in this novel, never quite happens with the detail you'd be waiting for. The whole book, then, holds off the advertised promise of easy fulfillment or lasting pleasure, intentionally perhaps.

I only realized after closing the book that never does Alma reveal what you'd expect most of all in a true memoir-- her loves or lusts. No mention of paramours, or for that matter of belief or its lack, enters this chilly world she lives in. You realize how lonely Alma has always been. She does sound formidably erudite for a woman whom you're presented with as never having had much schooling, but perhaps she had plenty of time for self-improvement in her long twilight years? The lack of logic here puzzled me. This feature appears to me to steadily weaken the novel, for the "voice" of Alma while you hear it channelled appears in a register out of sync with the one you'd expect from a late 1950's second-tier talent on the disposable pop charts and club circuit.

Also, the deracination of her from her Jewish immigrant parents, the lack of detail about her upbringing, makes her seem as if she appeared on stage at ten and never lived off of it? The moral of the story-- if it weren't for the fact that the fragmented narrative's far more concerned with the aftermath of her fame than the burst of fame itself. If not for the inclusion of an art gallery "catalogue entry" about the Blake painting, you'd have next to nothing to go on regarding her career's arc, her specific hits, or her impact on the musical scene. None of this can be sensed from this hermetic tale. It's as if she's shut off.

Still, whether an old folks' home for the once-famous (her mother's there, not her!), sodium-lit night-coach journeys, recalled meetings with such as Sammy Davis, Jr., morning in a dreary chain hotel, glimpses of exurban blight, and an evening in the company of a creepy (if pre-E-Bay) obsessive collectors of her ephemeral past-- they all gain harsh vignettes here. One detail well observed: the collector talks of Alma as he displays the wares he's hoarded always in the third person, even as he shows her his (once her) treasures. I note the other book Burn's credited with before this 1991 novel is a real-life look at the billiards scene, so once again the author's talent for roaming the lower depths behind the garish lights of the stage serve him well.

This isn't an easy read, and despite its brevity unsettles you. It's been compared, in its examination of the long slide down from the heights, to a recent novel (reviewed by me on Amazon US and this blog last month) about Kenneth Anger, Brian Jones, and Bobby Beausoleil by the American author Zachary Lazar, "Sway." Whereas that novel picks up around the point Alma's career would have started its descent, "Alma" brings back the giddy yet hungover time immediately before, the last of the vaudeville and variety act English fare that the Stones and the Beatles supplanted.

N.B.: Unbelievably, nowhere on the Net can an image of Blake's "Alma" be found. In the novel, Alma had to go into the Tate's climate-controlled inner-sanctum for a look at her image, so perhaps the real-world equivalent's as elusive. This indelible snapshot from her "playing the trombone" comes from a gal-singer tribute site as icky as those that a cyber-savvy F. McL. would've trolled today. I find there that "Just Couldn't Resist Her With Her Pocket Transistor" topped the Nipponese charts for a year. As they say, Big in Japan. Alma Cogan, 1932-66

1 comment:

Clancy said...

Gordon Burn's 'Alma Cogan' is an engrossing book, better, I feel, than this review lets on. True, the book's Alma does not always ring true to the real life person, but as a fictional creation in her own right she is entirely believable, and the rich, stylised prose gives her a life and times of her own. The book's detail and observation make for a sharp focus portrait of Britain in the 80's. The linking and playing off of the two female icons, Alma Cogan (50's innocence) and Myra Hindley (60's experience)is more intellectual than felt perhaps but remains an intriguing central concept around which the novel is structured. Burn's later novel, The Northern Home Service, also gives an excellent portrait of a time and place, highly readable but even more diffuse that Alma Cogan and without the powerful images that give the earlier book its memorable impact.