Jen Calleja used to play in the punk band Sauna Youth, so she knows all about that tour life. Living out of a van, existing outside of normal society for a while, trudging from basement to basement doing something dangerous and magical. Playing ominous, cathartic music that makes some people see God and other people see red.
She is also a celebrated poet, short story writer, and translator from German to English. She was the inaugural Translator in Residence at the British Library, and her translation of Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands (2019) was nominated for the Booker Prize.
This is her first novel.
Hester Heller used to play in the punk band Vehicle, except in the Nation they don’t call it punk; they call it musik. Musik fans wear aprons customized with patches and badges to represent their working-class backgrounds in bakeries and lace factories. They embroider logos and slogans into their skin. They are considered dangerous radicals by the Nation’s government, and Hester’s band is one of the most notorious acts around.
She is also a spy.
The Nation is a near-future, alternate-universe UK that has undergone a sort of hyper-Brexit called the Bordering. The country is completely closed. No one enters or leaves. There are no cell phones or internet, only telegrams. Even the past is banned, and most historians have to ply their vocation in secret. One group of young scholars, though, gets invited to take part in the Library Research Residency; they are brought to the Central Library and paid a stipend to help catalogue and cross-reference, delving into their specialist subjects in secret, but forbidden from collaborating or discussing their work with each other.
They live together in close quarters at the library, not allowed to leave, in a microcosm of the Nation’s isolation: strict rules and unease.
We are sealed in, no guests permitted. The stress of work and the tension in the place creates eruptions, outbursts, floods of emotion break their banks, outbreaks of exhaustion. We are strangers shipwrecked on a desert island, one with an endless supply of food, booze, zigarettes and powders. (p. 14)
When it becomes apparent that what all this cross-referencing amounts to is having actually been hired to root out certain supposedly dangerous and seditious texts so they can be destroyed, the scholars steal as much of the research material as they can grab, and go on the run in a borrowed van. It turns out they have all been studying the same things: none other than Hester Heller, her band Vehicle, and something called the Isletese Disaster.
Fifty years before the researchers’ time, Hester was done with playing musik and was studying at the mysterious Institute for Transmission, ostensibly studying translation but in fact retraining as a secret agent, all while laying low to avoid an abusive ex-husband to whom being married was, she says, “a kind of mentorship in cruelty” (p. 85). Then the Isletese Disaster happens. The Islets, a “sprawling, wandering archipelago” (p. 78) of moving islands that normally roamed the seas, begin to founder and to sink, plunging Isletese society into chaos and extreme peril. The Institute orders Hester to get Vehicle back together for a reunion tour, as cover for a fact-finding mission. She must put into practice all the dubious tactics of deception, seduction, and violence that she had been learning at the Institute to discover what, if anything, other countries were planning to do about the Isletese Situation.
After the researchers make their getaway, the story becomes mostly about Hester, her associates, and the Isletese Situation. This story is told through short, fragmented, vignette-like chapters, which are drawn from the surviving research notes. The researchers themselves speed off into the distance and only appear obliquely, in chapter titles that give us hints about their life on the run—“MOSES GETS NERVOUS GIGGLES WHILE RECOUNTING SOMETHING AWFUL IN DETAIL TO THE OTHER RESEARCHERS, SITTING IN A BOTHY WITH A FEW CANDLES” (p. 93). But these titles also suggest that what is presented as fact in the narrative might be taken from unreliable sources, or be the product of their own speculation as they confer about what they’ve discovered.
More and more of the researchers’ files are going missing, and it becomes increasingly hard to keep the truth straight. This emerges as one of Vehicle’s principle themes: to know where you stand when the past is being rewritten beneath your feet, you must invent your own version of the world, your own version of yourself, before they erase you entirely.
The researchers (and the reader) struggle to arrive at a definitive version of events, but never stop trying to piece together the past. They joyfully interpret and elaborate, positing what might have happened or might have been said, and try to arrive at an accurate fiction—what Werner Herzog called “ecstatic truth,” a story of their own devising that accounts for the few scant facts they have. It’s never clear, however, just how much of what’s presented to the reader is pulled from their research documents verbatim and how much is their own invention.
It can be disorienting. This isn’t your average potboiler novel with neat plot points and a Hollywood three-act structure. If you’re seeking a straightforward, easily grokkable narrative, this isn’t it. This is more like a real story, told in fits and starts over beers in a graffiti-addled dive bar, by multiple frazzled friends who can’t agree on one version of events, or even keep their own version straight.
As characters, the researchers are a beautiful, tangled mess, seeming to think, act, and even narrate as a collective. Their sections have a thematic throughline of collaboration, togetherness, and forging a social space separate from the Nation’s official, traditional ideas about how people are supposed to think and behave. Meanwhile, Hester appears increasingly estranged from her bandmates, as her spy work takes her further away from countercultural rebellion and entangles her more deeply with the goals of the Nation. She has to navigate the moral complexities of working for an uncaring authoritarian government, trying to positively influence its actions from inside the system. All the while she is developing into a more mature, subtler version of herself, influenced by what she learns about her own history and the history of the Islets and the Nation. A bit less the angry punk rocker, a bit more the thoughtful poet.
As well as the researchers’ own story, their cobbled-together version of past events, and Hester’s personal account, we also hear from Hester’s Institute chaperone Boyd Breakwell. Boyd’s narration is more furtive, circumspect, and insular. He offers a contrasting view of events told from a much more uptight perspective. He’s not a natural born musiker and doesn’t feel comfortable in the grimy, beery basement clubs; but having been charged with accompanying Hester on Vehicle’s reunion tour, he has to learn to cut loose a little, including letting the band shave his head along with each of their own as part of their pre-tour ritual. All these viewpoints overlap and intermingle and are filtered through each other, revealing Vehicle’s world from multiple angles and in multiple subtle lights, all of them somewhat ambiguous.
A lot of what huddles under the broad umbrella of “speculative fiction” features sumptuous worldbuilding, with outlandish locations and creatures, and epic plots where good must triumph over archetypal evil. Vehicle doesn’t have any of this. Instead, it shows a reality just one nudge of the dial away from our own. The locations are all too recognizable, the struggles not epic but disturbingly familiar. Vehicle digs deep into human experience, showing life in all its mess and chaos, and the bittersweet beauty in that. It also digs deep into Calleja’s many occupations and preoccupations: translation, creation, poetry, performance, music, and building communities outside the mainstream, where misfits can thrive.
In its extreme specificity, Vehicle captures something universal: searching for your people and finding them, that feeling of discovering Your Thing:
It was the loudest thing I'd ever heard; you didn't listen to it, you fell into it. It picked you up and threw you; it was like feeling the sun in my face, like standing in the rain. They were making this sound, it was coming from their hands, their mouths, amplified, made huge, like a wizard stoking up a curse, like a mad scientist’s machine, but they were mortal, it was them sweating, the exertion, the despair, the joy. (p. 57)
The publisher lists Vehicle as a “verse novel” and a lot of the writing has this half-poetry, half-prose mood to it: additive, impressionistic, more about feelings than grammar or rhetoric. At times Calleja’s writing can be enigmatic—not through obscure language, but through the slow release of meaning and the parceling out of detail in rolling, jumping, bouncing prose built from simple words. Description is delivered with a light touch, with enough space between sentences for the imagination to get to work. The overall style reflects its punk rock subject matter, like lyrics yelled from a sweaty stage—propulsive, angular, and profound:
He didn’t really want to make me the best me,
he wanted to keep me like a pet.
School started tasting sour, it went south,
it was exit time, needed to migrate out of there,
time to get the band back together. (p. 203)
Vehicle isn’t a simple book. The writing is experimental and wonderfully weird. It requires attention and thought. But I found it exciting, refreshing, and impossible to put down.