by Gordon Burn
Houghton Mifflin, 210 pp., $19.95
This is a novel that operates at the interface of reality and dream. Its subjects are show-biz stardom and serial killing. In real life—whatever that may be—its central character died in 1966, but in Gordon Burn’s narrative she lives on into the present day. Yet Alma Cogan was a “personality,” a creation of the media: in a sense she never really existed at all, except as a construct, a confabulation, “a work of conscious and total artifice.”
Alma Cogan was a singer, and an object, in Fifties Britain, of a certain sweaty proletarian desire. Encased in “gowns” of a formidable wide-skirted stiffness, spangled and swagged and surreal, Alma sparkled on stage and screen; live audiences loved her, and television made her a household name. For these were the days when television was treated with reverence, like a VIP visitor in the sitting rooms of the chosen few; friends and neighbors clustered around the set, attentive in the half-dark.
Alma was not just an entertainer, but a famous party girl; she knew everybody, buzzed about in a ritzy transatlantic crowd, and at one of her famous soirées introduced Noel Coward to the Beatles. The gossip columnists homed in on her string of “escorts”—who were mostly gay, though this was never mentioned at the time. Chubby, beaming, possessed of a peppy glamour but also a reassuring girl-next-door quality, Alma gave every impression of enjoying her life, unlike the dead-eyed anorexics who followed her in popular esteem.
She flourished at a time when the whole nation was in thrall to American style, and she projected the infectious energy that was associated with America. Because of a certain vocaltic, she was known as “the girl with the laugh in her voice,” though the laugh was more like a yelp or an attenuated yodel. Alma was no siren, she did not smolder. Her most famous songs were upbeat “novelty numbers.” “Where Will The Baby’s Dimple Be,” “Just Couldn’t Resist Her With Her Pocket Transistor,” “Never Do A Tango With An Eskimo.” Just to rehearse their names transports the reader, squirming with embarrassment, to a postwar world that could not bear too much reality. Alma had a shelf-like bosom, a grinding vivacity. She was an object who created her own fetishes and pressed them on her worshipers. Her hair was a great brunette puffball. The gowns, when she got out of them, stood up by themselves. Beneath this carapace, somewhere, was the shrinking flesh. She died at the age of thirty-four, of stomach cancer.
Writing in the first person, Burn describes Alma’s progress, allowing her to reminisce, from retirement, about her early life. Her father’s family, the Kogins, arrived in England from Russia, having disembarked believing they were in America. Her mother’s family were refugees from Rumania. Her parents were stage-struck, and Alma had to make up for her mother’s missed opportunities. Shirley Temple, “toxic in her winsomeness,” was the role model; in the cinema dark …