Award-winning Australian poet John Kinsella’s latest novel draws on the “hollow Earth” tradition, which used imaginary subterranean worlds as a tool for satire and social critique. Bringing the genre into the 21st century, Kinsella’s Hollow Earth tells the story of Manfred, who discovers a society living underground, free of conflict and in harmony with its environment. After living in Hollow Earth for a time, Manfred persuades two members of this society to visit the surface, but returning underground proves to be a difficult task. Meanwhile, sinister forces seek a way into Hollow Earth for their own voracious purposes.
The targets of this dark satire will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Kinsella’s work. Echoing a theme long present in his poetry, Hollow Earth rails against capitalism’s willing hand in the degradation of our planet.
Though ostensibly a novel, Hollow Earth also resembles a collection of prose poems. Over 184 numbered chapters that range in length from a single line to three pages, the meandering narrative often pauses to reflect deeply on characters’ inner lives or their physical surroundings. On either side of the book’s main section sits a collection of labelled preambles, codas and amendments, while a handful of metatextual footnotes are scattered throughout. These tonal and structural elements lend Hollow Earth the flavour of antipodean magic realism; the novel serves as a good companion to the works of Gerald Murnane and David Foster, or the later books of Janette Turner Hospital.
Kinsella acknowledges and defies adventure-story conventions by making his protagonists powerless and distanced from their antagonists. As our three main heroes shoot smack in Fremantle, couch surf around the world in search of an entrance to Hollow Earth and bemoan the destruction of our planet’s surface, they never cross paths with the villain, who lobbies and bribes his way towards invading Hollow Earth. The result is a plot that is somewhat diffuse and disappointing, albeit an accurate portrayal of the malaise in contemporary environmental politics.
In the past the tropes of “hollow Earth” novels have been used to present utopian visions or philosophies. Kinsella’s dystopian spin on these tropes is certainly clever and truthful, but its nihilism may ultimately frustrate its readers, even those sympathetic to its concerns.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 5, 2019 as "John Kinsella, Hollow Earth". Subscribe here.