Ultra-contemporary fictions about work, relationships, and the strange loop of technology and the self. They are about a generation on the cusp: the story of two people enmeshed in Zooms and lockdowns, loneliness and love, devices and desires.
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 ... 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 ... 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...But he can also write simply and beautifully, with a keen eye for the natural world and human behaviour.
If these mordant, intellectually agile stories of young love, life and work are indeed set in London, then it is the London of a lover of American literature. As such, the idea (promoted in the publisher’s blurb and elsewhere) that Reward System is a notably fresh, ultra-contemporary take on the tech-inflected tribulations of the author’s generation is somewhat misguided. Rather, Calder has adapted the literary modes of previous generations to present circumstances. Comparisons to David Foster Wallace are for emergency use only, but here I must grasp the little hammer and break the glass ... Calder’s prose splices archaism and tech-speak in a manner strongly reminiscent of Foster Wallace’s jolie-laide patchwork of registers ... That said, for all that Calder borrows from his forebears, he does it exceptionally well.
The infusion of technical jargon throughout Mr. Calder’s balanced prose has an eerie effect on the stories, as though the algorithm had begun colonizing the writing as well. These are, broadly speaking, portrayals of the mess of millennial life in the vein of Kristen Roupenian’s Cat Person, but the temperament is cooler and the corners are rounder, like on a MacBook Air. Generational zombification, in Mr. Calder’s penetrating depiction, has been a largely smooth and painless process, and there is no discontent brought about by the smartphone that the smartphone can’t also distract us from thinking about.