Mostly Disconnect

Reward System: Stories BY Jem Calder. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 304 pages. $27.
Cover of Reward System: Stories

Jem Calder’s Reward System is a fractionated fiction for a fragmented world: one in which the means of connection are constantly available, but connection is harder than ever, and everything is linked, but little is shared. The book, Calder’s debut, consists of six “ultra-contemporary fictions” that center on two characters, Julia and Nick, old university friends and one-time lovers whose post-university years are dominated by work and technology. Calder flits between episodes in their lives, magnifying specific incidents, leaving the reader to string together a narrative from discrete stories. Just when you’re getting comfortable, the scene shifts, or the characters change. This can be frustrating, but the form of Reward System fits its subject, which is the disunity of life amid cross-cutting demands on our attention.  

Calder’s style is filmic. We cut from Julia to Nick, Nick to Julia. We zoom into the life of a single character; we zoom out to look at their workplace or, as in the third story, the world of a dating app. On the sentence level, Calder commands attention through precision. Christopher Isherwood once wrote, “I am a camera with my shutter open”; Calder is a Canon EOS R5 with superb magnification, 45 megapixel resolution, and an 8-stop image stabilizer. He tells us, for example, that Julia’s housemate likes to have the lights on a “rotary dimmer setting, thirty degrees clockwise from exact midway, as demarcated by a Sharpie dot on the white plastic casing of the wall’s light switch.” The exactitude here is both arresting and alienating: one is simultaneously distanced and drawn in by Calder’s descriptions, seized by the detail and repulsed by the excess. 

The collection opens with a novella-length story about Julia’s new restaurant job and her relationship with the head chef, Ellery. Things go well at first, brightened by the ignorant bliss and confusion of early-stage romance, but Ellery becomes increasingly controlling. Julia is warned by the sous chef who formerly held her position that Ellery is a “psycho.” Spurred on by the warning and driven to the edge by Ellery’s behavior, Julia decides to end things, but then spends several pages half-in and half-out of the relationship, knowing that in breaking up with him she will lose her job. Julia is worried by the precarity of unemployment, but also aware that her work has become her life: to leave her job is thus to “discard” her life. 

Work has hollowed Julia out. The “circuit of her life” is “reducible down to humiliatingly few locations and characters,” virtually all of them associated with the restaurant. Conversations with her housemate Margot are banal, conducted primarily in monosyllables; she has no time to visit her mom, even at Christmas. Still, there are some redeeming features to her job. For example, it allows her to engage in the loving exercise of attention: 

The part she liked most about working was also the part she was best at: tightening the outlet of her concentration around a specific object or task so that nothing else entered her attentional field; deep monotasking to the point of pure immersion in the deed—or set of deeds—at hand. Hours passed easily, like minutes, this way, her body all but detached from the experience of time; cooking faster than she could think, acting on gut feeling and motor skill without room for hesitation; her focus centred on, say, skimming a surface foam of whey from a Pyrex jug of clarifying butter, trimming a foreleg of Iberian ham into perfect featherweight slices.

Here, Calder uses semicolons like valves to control the stream of his prose, capturing the tightening of Julia’s attention by tightening his own sentences. The specificity of description evokes Julia’s joyful immersion in the details of the tasks she performs. At the same time, Julia’s flow-state is also a form of escape from the very pressures created by her work in the kitchen.  

Nick’s attitude towards work is more straightforward: he hates it. When we meet him in the second story, he has just quit his job and moved back in with his parents. He is glad to have left, but also keenly aware that he has, in some sense, failed. A later story describes Nick’s former life in an anonymous office, where he spends many of his waking hours producing inane corporate puff-pieces and editing slide decks. This section is clearly influenced by Calder’s own experience as a copywriter. Reflecting on that time in an essay for Granta, Calder tells of how he ruthlessly exploited his job for art’s sake, writing “in the address bar of my web browser, in spreadsheet cells, in emails I addressed to myself.” Following David Graeber, he calls this “spiritual warfare”; the invocation hints at Calder’s radical politics. In Reward System, Nick, too, devotes much of his workday to writing. It’s possible to imagine him emerging from the ennui of the office into the individuality of authorship. It’s equally possible to imagine him bumbling along in the slipstream of society, half-waving, half-drowning, living in a house he doesn’t own, shifting from one gig to the next. 

Technology is a background presence in the first two stories, and moves into the spotlight in the third, which follows the interactions between an unnamed “male user” and an unnamed “female user” on a dating app. The only story not to explicitly feature Julia or Nick, it illustrates how social media can shape people like them in pathological ways. The “algorithm-based dating app”—as it is always called—has warped the male user’s perception such that he sees women as “oddly clone-like,” a series of interchangeable pictures and profiles to be flicked between at will. The female user worries obsessively over the length of time the male user takes to reply to her messages. Both are hooked on app-induced romance—it cannot be an accident that Calder’s choice of the word “user” makes the two characters sound like drug addicts.

Calder’s writing style is precise but not spare; packed with detail but not gaudy. But he sometimes gets high on his own supply, succumbing to the attractions of the orotund and obtuse in his desire to avoid cliché. A sample: “Newland grunts bisyllabically (‘Nnn-mmm’), his face magenta-ing as he wrangles with the stuck sheets of paper.” If one can forgive the ugly word “bisyllabically,” the choice of “magenta-ing” rather than “reddening” verges on the ridiculous. Calder is also fond of jargon, business-speak, and technobabble, which can occasionally jar. Of course, such language is part and parcel of our society, and Calder’s use of it is also part of his art: he deploys these absurd locutions to show how language distances and alienates even as it precisifies and delineates. 

When Julia and Nick finally meet at a street market in the courtyard of a church in Reward System’s fourth story, the sky is “the colour of the Financial Times” and Nick’s carrying a big houseplant. It turns out they’ve been living within a mile of each other in the city for two years but haven’t met up once. Walking together through streets filled with twenty-something couples, Nick and Julia remember that they used to date each other. Julia complains about her relationship, her work, her luck in life, the alienation of London. Nick asks, “So, what’s keeping you here?” Julia realizes she has no answer: “Briefly, she rethought her entire adult life.” 

Presumably, the reignited friendship between Julia and Nick develops off the page, because in the collection’s final story they Zoom each other from their childhood bedrooms at the front-end of a pandemic, both aimless, gathering themselves for a new slog. Connection flits in and out; illness hangs between them. Julia’s face freezes; Nick sneezes. As the two grow closer, Nick subtextually entertains the thought that he and Julia may reconnect; that their lives could intersect again, and more permanently. Then Julia says that she is tentatively planning on moving to Toronto, where her brother-in-law says that he has a job for her. Nick realises “with clairvoyant-like surety” that he will not see her again “for the full duration of the foreseeable.” 

As I read this climactic scene, I smiled. Then, a few paragraphs later, I cried. It was partly a wave of barely repressed pandemic-era feelings hitting me with the velocity and momentum of a storm front, and partly a delighted reaction to the skill and humanity of what I was reading. I felt seen and I felt present; I felt invisible and I felt absorbed. The satisfaction of Calder’s book is cumulative: reading this final story, I had a sense that time had passed, distance had been traversed, an arc had been traced, a circle closed. Reward System is not a perfect book. In some respects, it feels like the promissory note for a novel. But it is some promissory note. 

Michael O’Connor is an editor at the Oxonian Review and a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Oxford.