Epistolary novels have a long, proud history, harking back to perennial favourites like Anne Bronte’s The Tennant of Wildfell Hall (told mostly through diary entries) and Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons (told through letters exchanged between the scheming protagonists). In more modern times, Helene Hanff used the form in 84, Charing Cross Road, as did Lionel Shriver in We Need to Talk About Kevin. And now, Annabel Smith has given the epistolary novel a twenty-first century reboot in her recently-released dystopian novel The Ark. The story is told through emails, blogs, procedural reports, speech transcripts and the occasional newspaper clipping. Though it might sound dry, this impressive technical feat of storytelling is a clever and appropriate twinning of form and function.
Smith’s book tells the story of a seed vault hidden within Mt Kosciusko in New South Wales. Loosely based on the real-life Svalbard global seed vault in Norway, the bunker’s principal function is to preserve and protect the earth’s botanical footprint as human society descends into chaos and anarchy in the wake of a peak oil crisis. As rationing, unemployment, looting and cannibalism take hold, 26 people are enclosed in the bunker under the leadership of the charismatic but morally ambiguous Aidan. (In a mockery of the tendency of dictators to give themselves grandiose titles – Stalin (‘Man of Steel’), Il Dulce (‘The Chief’) – Smith has Aidan style himself ‘Sequoia’, and invents a ceremony whereby his followers relinquish their names and assume the names of plants instead).
The first part of the novel is composed of very human, deeply personal exchanges, which take the form of emails from bolshie, doubting Ava to her sister. Ava fears for the safety of her sister, marooned in the outside world, and is increasingly uncomfortable with Aidan’s omnipotence. Ava then ‘disappears’ from the narrative, medicated into compliance and cut off from the outside world by a server-breakdown. The subsequent chapters become progressively more impersonal, as the perennial surveillance within the bunker produces language that seeks at once to communicate and to obscure.
The internet diary entries of teenager Roscoe are mediated through the pressures of his peer group. Roscoe and his cohorts ‘speak’ in short, mangled-cool entries (‘Mad politix in here. Flipside of keepin undesirables OUT of a bunker is keepin every1else IN’). Initially, these ‘kaos kronikles’ seem busy and distracting, but readers trained in the art of ignoring ads on their Facebook and email streams will soon acclimatise. As the documents become increasingly more procedural in nature, we glimpse a window into a society under extreme pressure. Rules, structure and procedure offer their own small comforts, even as the inhabitants of the bunker question the values and sanity of the leader imposing his form of order upon them all.
Smith’s experimentation extends beyond The Ark’s form, to the way it has been published. The novel exists as a ‘real’ book, formatted into emails, blogs, medical reports and the like. It is accompanied by an interactive website that allows readers to ‘tour’ the bunker and suggest fan fiction ideas. The book is also self-published – a departure for Smith, whose two previous books, A New Map of the Universe and Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, were published by UWA Publishing and Fremantle Press respectively.
The Ark is original, creative and bold. Smith deserves credit for her willingness to experiment with form, and to attempt that too-rare thing in Australian fiction: a novel of ideas.
SA Jones read and commented on an early version of The Ark in manuscript form.