Reward System by Jem Calder review – slaves to the algorithm

The Guardian - Sat May 14 06:30

In recent years, much of the most innovative work in the anglophone short story has come from Ireland, from writers such as Colin Barrett, Wendy Erskine and Nicole Flattery. New debut collections by gifted British authors Saba Sams and Gurnaik Johal have shown the unmistakable influence of their Irish peers. The publication of Reward System by Cambridge-born Jem Calder provides further evidence that the medium is attracting some of the most talented young writers of fiction at work today, on both sides of the Irish sea.

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Strictly speaking, Reward System isn’t quite a short story collection. It’s a book of six tales, most of which are slightly interlinked through the reappearance of two main characters, and one of which – about an assistant chef in a restaurant kitchen who has an affair with her older boss – is long enough to be classed as a novella. But as up-to-date as these stories feel, Reward System belongs firmly in the tradition of fictional miniaturism: Calder’s stories are all granular portraits of micro-interactions between people in ostensibly mundane settings, tapped out on six inches of LCD glass.

The book’s world is that of young Londoners: rent-squeezed, smartphone-addicted, woke-ish (but, more often than not, concerned they’re not woke enough). They are not, it must be said, contented souls: they tend to spend their work hours at “purgatorial, underpaid desk jobs” and their free time attending vaguely humiliating social gatherings or on romantic downward spirals mediated by “algorithm-based dating apps” that make them feel like “holographic” versions of themselves. One, at his work desk, concludes he has “formatted his entire personality around the feeling of just sitting here, letting his precious life-moments pass him by like it doesn’t mean anything”. Another has a sense of “touristic irresponsibility towards a life that seems to end at the limits of his field of vision”. Calder’s view of contemporary reality feels several notches darker and more jaded than, say, Flattery’s or Sally Rooney’s.

So why doesn’t a single page here feel dour or depressing to read? Quite simply because Calder is a superb writer, by turns funny, graceful, acidly cynical, lyrical – and always verbally dexterous and inventive. He can make the boredom of office life fascinating, as in Search Engine Optimisation; he can make a desolate house party enlivening, as in Better Off Alone; and his descriptions of loneliness and dissatisfaction, as in virtually all these stories, leave the reader feeling understood – or, as his characters would say, seen. One of his favoured techniques is to defamiliarise ordinary actions or objects with comically precise description: a character doesn’t use a vape but “cartridges of glycerine-based, nicotine-salt-containing syrup from a vaporiser identical in shape and weight to a standard USB flash drive”.

But he can also write simply and beautifully, with a keen eye for the natural world and human behaviour. An “overcast midday sky” is “the colour of the Financial Times”; rain falls “invisible in mid-air but manifesting as a constellation of discoloured discs out on the road and pavement”. And there is a real tenderness in the way he follows his two sort-of protagonists, Nick and Julia, who were once lovers and whose orbits cross several times.

A theme that recurs in Calder’s writing is secrecy. His characters are frequently anxious about – though occasionally comforted by – the fact that they are all constantly being tracked by apps that know them better than they know themselves. Third-person fiction is, in a sense, an app that practises gross invasions of privacy. Reward System shows us its characters in every form of compromising activity: one pisses in another’s bathroom sink, for no special reason; one spends hours filming herself on her laptop miming ordinary activities, then watching herself back; everyone stalks each other online.

But there is compassion, even love, in the way Calder describes these shameful moments, as though by observing them so empathically he restores his characters’ integrity. And occasionally the narrator seems to recede from the characters and leave them, for a moment, with the dignity of inviolable solitude – as when one woman turns her smartphone off and we simply read: “Whether or not she absently ran her fingers over the soft underside of her chin as she watched the passing world and considered her place in it, the algorithm could not say.”