Monday, May 5, 2014

David Peace's "GB84": Book Review

"The Iron Lady would vanquish King Coal." So portends this struggle between Thatcher and Arthur Scargill, whether privatization and capitalism or nationalization and collective control would win, when pitted against miners on strike, or scabbing, between March 1984 and 1985. This may not seem promising content for a novel, but David Peace drills down into densely patterned, intricately plotted, yet superficially simply told narratives that track a few men committed to different goals during this grim year. They are predestined to meet.

"The Jew" is a rabble-rousing reactionary publicist who uses the tabloids and his shadowy contacts to foment discontent with the strikers. He adores Margaret Thatcher. "His eyes never leave her face; hope never leaves his heart." So reports after a visit by the Prime Minister the "Jew" Stephen Sweet's henchman, Neil Fontaine. Neil carries out subversion to undermine the strike. This strand of the novel intertwines with Terry Winters, who carries out orders of "King Arthur," the President of the militant miners. Terry in turn courts Diane, who it turns out was the wife of Malcolm Morris. His third plot-strand spins out in less clear fashion, but he evidently has a long career, from Ulster 1969 on, and he has been compromised to work for the government. Why exactly, typically here, is occluded.

Peace blurs a lot. His language is so sparse and declamatory that it's rare to have any descriptive passages that stand out. His characters' tell of their endless driving and diversion, and while every motorway junction and byway is recorded obsessively, the look and feel of England when "two tribes go to war" is dulled, intentionally. It's a vaguely told tale for all its daily detail, in fifty-two chapters that dutifully track these main characters as they log in and spy on each other. They all study the strategy of the radical miners who slowly must accept the scabs as the majority of "working miners" looms to spell doom for the "Red Guard" in Thatcher's version of a ruthless State. The money spent, ironically, on suppressing the strike, by police, far outweighs whatever costs have accrued in an industry that appears to the State to have outlived its economic viability. Peace to his credit, while clearly on the side of the miners, shows too their increasing bitterness and the revenge they mete out on these South and West Yorkshire "working miners" as the situation grows desperate over 1984.

Peace does not belabor this, but the tension between scabs and strikers tears apart communities and families. The dawn battles as strikers try to protest at the mines and the police and scabs try to enter, day after day for hundreds of days, wears down everyone. Through one "Peter" and especially a fellow striker, Martin Daly, we get more stream-of-consciousness journals or a run of sensory impressions of what those such as Terry, more removed from the pits, don't encounter each mine shift. This oddness sinks in: in fog and dimness, "blokes hanging from trees" try to evade the police batons below, and the waiting dogs. The brutality of these scenes proves Peace's point in "GB84."

One striker comes back after a beating, with new teeth. "Police State took them out, he laughs. Welfare State put them back in." This gallows humor is very rare. This book kept me reading late into the night, but I could not explain why. The foregone nature of the fate of the miners, nevertheless, does not diminish the power of Peace's bleak portrayal of a crumbling British mindset, where men cannot resist the power of an armed force bent on crushing resistance and eliminating any concession by the miners. This may or may not be totally true, for Peace, who gives the sources that inspired his admitted fiction, may slant his emphasis accordingly to heighten what seem still very scant asides to a fylfot, lapses unexplained by one character into brief bits of Old or Middle English, or extreme right-wing leanings that, in the actions of "The Jew," at times near caricature rather than profile. He edges towards parody in some of these violent scenes. Peace warps some characters and leaves certain motivations and consequences under-explained, intentionally if frustratingly given the obvious attention to structure and chronicling which a year's worth of chapters demonstrates well.

In closing, what Tinkerbell in some italicized ravings into Shakespearean language and allusion calls "the children of a hasty marriage" may stand for the alliances between miners and unions which are undermined by blackmail, tape recorders, Libyans, foreign bank accounts, Fleet Street, jailers, the law, panic and desperation of miners losing homes, families, and livelihoods, and unrelenting pressure to cross picket lines. Peace offers no solutions. This novel provides readers decades later a challenge as terms may elude non-British readers, but he forces us to look at this divide beyond soundbites or slogans. He takes pains to show much, while he also makes sure to keep a lot hidden.

(I am posting this on Amazon US with a German cover 4-26-14. Added 1-13-16 to the other reviews of the existing Faber British edition, finally published by Melville House in the U.S. in Sept. 2014)

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