John Kinsella's Hollow Earth is billed as "combining a twenty-first century sense of planetary peril with a 1970s funkadelic vibe". That much is true, but be warned: little of this cascading critique of humanity's failings is easily digested. If you're looking for something to begin, continue, and finish reading (in that order), then move on.
Hollow Earth is a verse novel, divided into a 184 subsections, plus preamble, coda, and further amendments. The narrative style is episodic and expository, entirely coded in a maddeningly glib cipher. Kinsella uses footnotes to deliberately obfuscate, such as subsection #165's "You Know Who." and #90's "Do we really have to footnote this?"
The central Hollow Earther characters Ari and Zest are intended to present as naive but often appear ill-formed instead, their motivations and justifications whimsical. One drugs and date rapes two characters in #105, yet this appears to have no weight or repercussions, as "she made sure both were so off their faces... that they wouldn't remember it".
Much of the book's action is undertaken in a consequence-free zone where internal monologue, memory, and dialogue all bleed together. In pairing lack of clarity with unengaging protagonists in a non-linear timeline, readers find themselves turning pages out of mechanical habit.
Yet as a critical text to study, Hollow Earth is fertile ground, working in conversation with other kindred parables (Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth, William R. Bradshaw's The Goddess of Atvatabar, etc.) and goliaths of literature to critique humankind's avarice, a process largely documented in the footnoted, breadcrumb-referential fashion endemic to those deeply-entrenched in academia.
While sections such as #76 (simply "Racial profiling.") feel overly brief, Kinsella's wealth of knowledge always remains evident if not accessible.
This inaccessibility is most evident in the multi-lingual detours, like #74's eight-stanza poem wholly in French, in #145, and #141's Latin; a quote originating from Virgil's Aeneid and found in Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Poetry explained is often diminished, yet these darlings strike as lazy storytelling and reek of elitism.
Ultimately, Hollow Earth as a story only works when paired with a robust classical literature education. Perhaps the author thinks too highly of us; that we each are scholars prepared for this intertextual feast. But a reader adrift is a reader alienated.
Though intellectual critique may have broken new ground, this story is as hollow as the title implies.
- Jerzy Beaumont is a Canberra poet and art worker.
- Hollow Earth, by John Kinsella. Transit Lounge. $29.99.