Vehicle: A Verse Novel

Jen Calleja

February 1, 2023 
The following is from Jen Calleja's metafictional novel Vehicle. Calleja has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize and the Schlegel-Tieck Prize as a literary translator from German into English and was the inaugural Translator in Residence at the British Library. Calleja's poetry and essays have been published widely, and her short story collection I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For was published by Prototype in 2020.


It felt like a trap. But feeling trapped is also a feeling, a certain regard. It is a coming in from a bitingly cold disdain. The open call was in many respects an amnesty. The volume got turned up on reflective, critical and morose practices, anyone not living in reality, now, considered filth or froth.

They say that banning the past will make everyone happier. Historians and their kin have been underground for a long time, giving lectures in basements, rehearsing theories in the mirror, telling stories in small groups, among fellow delvers and miners.

The Library Research Residency, the chance to reside and read at the Central Library during autumn 2050, is the first sniff of credit and cash in years. We, the ‘first cohort’, have been put up in private quarters above the Central Library, each with our own room, a communal space, a stipend. None of us dares speak of our research. We fear everyone else is a spy, or, worse, someone from our own field. There might be fruitful overlap, but then, what if there were fruitful overlap! Nobody wants that, a dilution of the unique niche we have crafted; collaboration is in any case in violation of our residency agreement. Collaboration is a sign of weakness, a mark of a lack of confidence, according to the Solo Manifesto distributed by the government years ago. This could be a vehicle to long-term funding, a permanent position; maybe we are all in competition. We isolate ourselves, like the Bordering when the Nation left the Mainland; wall ourselves off, present our vague, mythological, aloof selves.

We are all under pressure. There are only three months to complete our self-initiated projects. Typically, three of us will be in the archives, three shut in our rooms, three in the living space, two in the bath. Two months left. Every other night we have parties, we are the only people in the whole austere building after seven. Dinner parties, dance parties. 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. One of the librarians is a certified tablet dealer with a satisfying cataloguing system; their case is a pixelated work of art. Check out docs and books, check out a dose to focus, a vial to relax, a tablet to make you float a foot above the ground, a lollipop to make you sink down into the floor or the pages of the book you are reading, the lines bobbing just underneath your nose. Everyone is constantly wearing something off, something as toxic as concepts.

In the early mornings there is the open and close and open and close and open and close of sneaking back to one’s own room or slipping into someone else’s after everyone has gone to bed. It is good to forget one’s brain. One’s identity. Translate into something abstract, only touch, not thought. In these moments of presence, of timelessness, we feel ashamed to see why the government is pushing letting go of the past, of who we thought we were, and just existing. By the second month this clandestine behaviour seems ridiculous. There are plaited limbs on sofas with a shared bowl of cereal, compression in the stairwell down to the Library, no shirts in the kitchen before carrying two or three coffees back to rooms, a hoarse cheer goes up from within as the door clicks shut.

We fantasise about the figures and places we dedicate our lives to. It makes us euphoric, melancholic. We write little stories about them. Sometimes we are in them. We daydream, but we will never meet them, be them, be there. They would understand us, they would really understand us.

There are vague hints dropped late at night. I’m looking at:          subcultural         the depiction       a survey a study   the construction   the dynamics.

One month left. Yolanda finds a graffito in their bathroom, scratched into a tile by the bath: too good to be. Work is frenzied, sleep has left the building. The abundant lunches and nourishing dinners left on the long dining room table by invisible hands become smaller, oilier, saltier. Bottles breed. No one can claim whole bags of tablets and powders.

It is our final week. Most of us are in our pyjamas, unwashed, greasy, stinking at four in the afternoon. There are papers, books, files everywhere. Lidless pens, blunt pencils, indecipherable notes. No one dares ask how things are going. In a few days we will be giving a presentation to the funders and the public of our findings, read from our drafted manuscripts furiously typed on the Library machines in our private basement study with its own coffee maker and complimentary snack display.

The phone rings: Yuri overheard a Library assistant asking off-handedly if those artholes’ desks would still be cleared out at 5 a.m., and their supervisor put a finger to their lips. You better get down here, Yuri says, I don’t think this is good. Someone else is trying to get through on the line. Call me back! Yuri hisses. The door slams in the meantime, it is Wanda. It’s all gone. My writing, my scans, the arting Library system deleted everything.

Get out, now, the voice on the phone says. You need to grab everything and go!

Who is this?

I can’t tell you who I am, they will take everything you found for them.

Who are you? What are you talking about?

We were all researching, all the same thing, then they took everything, they have a list of histories and peoples they want wiped from the archives, and they draw researchers in to find every scrap. You need to leave!

But this is the first residency, isn’t it?

There have been dozens! You were all targeted specifically, they know researchers never share opportunities or conferI need to go, someone’s coming, grab what you can and get out of there, they’ll probably come first thing tomorrow, or tonight, you can’t be sure.

The residency phone can only make calls within the Library, or receive calls from somewhere in the building. Are you a librarian? A visitor?

They are gone. It was like getting word of the imminent assassination of all our dear departed subjects.

Yuri? Yuri? We’re coming down! What were we going to do? Stefan had been seeing someone called Coy who drove a school bus for a living before this. There is no access to a telegrammer in the living quarters, only in the Library, and our accounts are blocked for the duration of the residency. Coy worked in a bar near their flat about a mile away. Stefan ran out the door shouting, meet me downstairs, out front in half an hour! Please get as much from my room as you can!

While most of us went to the Library to get what we could, the others got drawers and bin bags and scooped everything into the dark. Down in the Library, we checked the systems in vain: every word and image, gone. A moment to mourn, before grabbing armfuls of loose paper, bent-back books. The librarians were alarmed, alerted. They ran over, tried to grab our notebooks, our crumbled waste. We started running, throwing everything down the stairs, between the bannisters, kicking folders, throwing heavy directories at the panicking librarians.

When we got to the foyer, a few of us had barely anything at all. Stefan pulled up outside in a navy blue van with white writing on it and a crest bearing an open book, then jumped out to help. Bin bags came flying from the penthouse windows, bursting onto the road. We chucked everything into the van, paper crushed in our fists, stuffed up our jumpers and down our trousers. We pushed off the security guards, Hiromi throwing a punch that was caught by a guard trying to take Shaz’s rucksack. They wanted the paperwork, not us. We pulled away, watching them throw buckets of water over the transcripts, print-outs, letters left to die on the pavement.

Once in the van, Ffion, driving fast, turns their head slightly and shouts for abstracts from everyone. No interruptions!


From Vehicle by Jen Calleja. Used with permission of the publisher, Prototype Publishing. Copyright © 2023 by Jen Calleja.

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