Review: The Minority Council

I actually had to look this up on Goodreads to remind myself of what happens in it. Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift series is one of those where it’s not the plot that matters so much as the atmosphere, the language, the outlook on the world.

Nevertheless, for convention’s sake: The Minority Council is The One With The Drugs. Someone in London is manufacturing and selling an immensely powerful and addictive drug (called “fairy dust”, but don’t let the tweeness of the name deceive you) to the city’s magical population, and they’re well-connected enough that the Aldermen, the organisation that regulates magic in London, are turning a blind eye. Meanwhile, Something is stalking the streets sucking out the minds/souls of delinquent teenagers.

Matthew Swift, reluctant Midnight Mayor, leader of the Aldermen and protector of the city, half human sorcerer, half blue electric angels made out of the magic of the telephone system, all-round Ordinary Guy, tries to get to the bottom of things.

The driving conflict of the novel, the fourth in Griffin’s series, is between individual wellbeing and the collective good. The Aldermen, with their luxurious corporate offices in the Square Mile and the resources of an investment bank, and their name that references a tradition reaching back hundreds of years, are concerned solely with the good of the city as a whole; they believe it’s worth sacrificing individuals to preserve the status quo, the delicate balance of power that keeps the city from descending into chaos. Matthew, on the other hand, has no truck with this approach: he gets involved in things because people he knows are directly affected by them; he thinks it’s worth upsetting the status quo to protect ordinary people. He is, in fact, a champion for the ordinary people: with his charity-shop clothes and lack of any fixed address, he is the exact opposite of the established power and privilege of the Aldermen and their like.

This is a theme that’s emerged as the series has gone on: I was ambivalent about Matthew’s advocacy of the individual and the powerless in the third novel, The Neon Court, and while I still think it’s a disappointingly obvious direction to go in, I also think Griffin’s tapping into a key dynamic of city life. One of the things that’s most simultaneously invigorating and terrifying about living in a big city like London is its indifference to you. As you walk its streets, as you pile onto a crowded underground train, as you look out your window onto the city at night, you feel that you’re part of the city’s life, part of something much greater and harder to comprehend than you are. In one sense, you are vital to the city, because the city needs people to be a city. And yet, if you, specifically, did not exist, left the city, disappeared, died, the city would not care. It would not miss you. You, as an individual, do not matter.

The city is terrifying (and, at the same time, invigorating) because it threatens your subjectivity, your individuality; it is constantly threatening to subsume your you-ness into its own superabundance of life. Living in the city is like being devoured by some great organic being. This drama of subjectivity is played out in miniature in The Minority Council in the figure of Matthew: his first-person narration slides between I and we, between singular Matthew and multiple, nameless blue electric angels. Is he Matthew, individual and sovereign in his subjectivity? Or are they the blue electric angels, a mass of undifferentiated beings who care nothing for individual suffering? The dichotomy is complicated by the fact that Matthew gains much of his power as a sorcerer from the angels who inhabit his bloodstream. Similarly: is he Matthew, Ordinary Guy who can blend into the streets? Or is he the Midnight Mayor, nameless and charged with protecting the city, not its people?

The real point about these contradictions is that they’re never resolved; nor can they be, because this kind of uncertainty is a key characteristic of the city. London is full of contradictions, impossibilities existing side-by-side; it is too large, too baggy, for anything to describe. Hence the bagginess of Griffin’s prose (which gets more technically polished and, paradoxically, less effective with each novel in the series):

Here I caught the Docklands Light Railway, and headed south, towards where Canary Wharf was an arctic silver beacon, catching the clouds in its towers and lighting them from beneath.

These run-on sentences with their sprawling clauses are deliberately excessive; instead of aiming for precise description, Griffin piles on words and images in an attempt, not exactly to describe, but to circumscribe what the city is and is like. It is prose that points to a gap, that invokes instead of pinning down. It exists in a liminal state, on the border between the speakable and the unspeakable, and in doing so it reflects the liminality of living in a city, existing on the border of I and we.

I don’t want to say that it’s only speculative fiction that can push language in this way (Ann Radcliffe was doing something quite similar in the eighteenth century, for instance); it’s more that only speculative fiction is allowed to do this work at the moment, in a literary culture that values mimesis, precision and “realism” over metanarrative and magic.

(I have a feeling this is going to be my hobby horse for 2019. THIS IS THE HILL I WILL DIE ON.)

Obviously, I think metanarrative is important, and I think speculative fiction is important; it shows us things we cannot otherwise see or describe. Obviously, I continue to enjoy the Matthew Swift series while thinking that it has lost some of its power and originality. Obviously, I will read more from Kate Griffin.

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