When studio executives first saw the script of Groundhog Day, they got nervous. Pressure was put on screenwriter Danny Rubin to explain how Bill Murray’s weatherman gets caught in a loop repeating the same day over and over again. Director Harold Ramis was an old hand at playing the studio game. He and Rubin added an explanation in the script, and then promptly didn’t bother shooting it. Nobody noticed and nobody cared because Groundhog Day is a fable.
From Aesop to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, fables have always been a popular form of storytelling. In a fable, the author knowingly creates an absurd situation simply to turn reality on its head. Thus he or she can explore an alternative way of seeing the world. Hollow World too is a fable, although it is ostensibly a modern riff on H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Sullivan creates a ridiculous time machine to throw his hero Ellis Rogers into the far future, where he encounters a world radically different to our own.
It’s an impressive piece of world building. We find a society living without families, want, deprivation, crime or war. However, in the process, people have lost much of what makes us truly human: emotions like fear, ambition, anger and love.
The story rattles along. I was surprised when my Kindle announced that it had all ended after just 47%, not having bothered to read an introduction which explains that the Kindle contains two versions of the book: an explicit as well as a family-friendly version. Mine was the explicit one but it was nowhere near as gory or filthy as most of the books I get sent these days, which made a nice change.
Sullivan’s real interest in writing Hollow World is to examine the conflict that currently seems to be tearing the United States apart. That is the conflict between liberal and conservative America, and their inability to come to peace even when the necessity for compromise is blindly obvious to all. Sullivan posits a future world where all our present-day hopes and aspirations have been swept away, leaving a world utterly alien in its place.
The point of his fable is that conservatism is doomed because everything is changing all the time. There are no immutable truths when it comes to society and human behaviour. Life is in constant flux and all the political battles of our time are not just going to be lost, but completely forgotten by our descendants.
I enjoyed Hollow World. It was especially nice to see a positive portrayal of Detroit after Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex told the story of a city in flames, and the documentary Waiting for Sugar Man showed streets that were crumbling into ruins. If there is one weakness in the book it is that Sullivan has a touch of the Quammens, in that everything is compared to a present day film, book or actor. That kept breaking the story for me, especially when it was a reference to some more obscure point of Americana.