Set in Albuquerque, The Vault Apocalyptia imagines a tour through the city’s National Museum of Nuclear Science and History on the day of the apocalypse. Led by docent, readers meet an unruly assortment of displays, each illuminating a chapter of America’s nuclear story. Exhibits stage musicals, plunder sets, plot against and usurp other exhibits, while museum benefactors and industry shills interrupt with assurance that the collection poses no threat. Over the course of the novel, and along a path never strictly chronological, the atomic century is rebuilt, from its hopeful past to its grim present. At its center, and ever looming, is the main attraction, the Bomb, with its stark warning that we may yet end up where we’re headed.
Each chapter takes on a different style or is written through a different voice, giving separate shape to the exhibits and likening the book to moving through a museum’s themed spaces. A chapter on the Manhattan Project’s work in Los Alamos, for instance, reads as a series of panels that echo the idiom of a midcentury newsreel. Also, mimicking the bomb’s insinuation into American consciousness, and embedded throughout the text, are countless Cold War allusions, buried jargon, and fragments of atomic culture. Kick up a corner of carpet, and you might catch a glimpse of the gravestones paving the museum’s corridors.