Kinsella makes a point of stating that the subterranean civilisation he envisions in Hollow Earth is ‘‘no utopia’’. But his novel does, pace More, make use of the time-honoured satirical technique of imagining another world in order to prompt reflection on our own customs and attitudes.
The inhabitants of Hollow Earth, notwithstanding a greenish tinge to their complexions, are basically the same as surface-dwelling humans, except their society is harmonious. They are not acquisitive. They do not eat animals. They are technologically advanced, yet do not exploit the environment. Though they are not culturally or linguistically homogenous, they treat differences with respect. Everyone speaks everyone else’s language, so misunderstandings are avoided; gender is understood to be changeable, eliminating it as a source of conflict.
Hollow Earth thus seeks to make an unambiguous point. The discovery of Hollow Earth leads to its exploitation at the hands of a rapacious villain known as the Robber Baron. When our benign subterranean cousins learn of the destructive relationship between us polluting surface-dwellers and the natural world, they come to regard it as a form of ‘‘psychosis’’. At this point in human history, it is hard to disagree.
Around this basic concept, Kinsella has created an unusual novel that is less interested in systematic world-building than teasing out its premises, riffing on them in a seemingly spontaneous and often playful fashion, while conversing with a variety of literary antecedents, most notably an obscure 19th-century novel by William R. Bradshaw called The Goddess of Atvatabar, which also imagines an underground world.
The action shifts between descriptions of its central character Manfred’s rather lonely childhood in Western Australia and his peripatetic adventures as an adult with two companions from Hollow Earth, Ari and Zest. Their experiences are framed by the novel’s overarching conceit, which is that the underworld also represents the unconscious — to be in Hollow Earth is said at one point to resemble being ‘‘inside your own head’’.
The implication is that regarding our existing dystopian world as a natural or unavoidable state of affairs is a way of avoiding the fact that it is the deliberately created product of a toxic mindset. It is a matter of consciousness and will. ‘‘They invent notions of utopias up here,’’ Zest observes, ‘‘to ward off facing responsibilities. Ours is no utopia — it just is.’’
To describe Kinsella as prolific is to risk understatement. He publishes so many volumes of poetry and fiction it seems he can’t be bothered counting them any more. His author bio speaks airily of ‘‘more than 40 books’’. The frenetic quality of this extraordinary creativity perhaps goes some way towards explaining why Hollow Earth, for all its wit and intellectual vitality, seems undercooked. Some of its indeterminacy and loose style is certainly purposeful: ‘‘narratives loop, surely,’’ Kinsella writes, ‘‘and who can say which ends we’re working with?’’
The short chapters, the disjunctions of plot and chronology, the jumble of voices liberated from quotation marks, the scraps of poetry and the undigested chunks of Bradshaw and Tristram Shandy could be viewed as exercises in late-modernist fragmentation; less charitably, they could be interpreted as evidence that Hollow Earth is structurally a bit of a shambles, and perhaps a couple of drafts shy of being the kind of fully realised work that might have given teeth to its imaginative premises.