Review: Jem Calder’s millennial short stories, “Reward System”

On the shelf

Reward System: Stories

By Jem Calder
FSG: 304 pages, $27

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A male user swipes to the right. A woman is notified. There is a break. How to answer? “After waiting the requisite number of hours after receiving the male user’s message to appear sufficiently busy and not distressed alone,” writes Jem Calder, “the female user stitched together a reply to the male user that sounded both playful and protective.”

Millennia of malaise and self-awareness, struggling to fight alienation despite the horrible feeling that nothing is natural or right: this is the taut, strange, compelling new terrain – like the above from a story titled Distraction From Sadness Is Not the Same Thing as Happiness” – that helps form Calder’s brilliant, compelling and defiantly authentic new story collection, Reward System.

In this half-dozen stories, the young British debut author has mastered a kind of maximal minimalism, accumulating detail and allusion while shedding illusions. Imagine a slightly less shy Sally Rooney paired with a supremely perceptive alien, with oddly revealing results. Calder keeps reminding us of Rooney (who blurred the book) as he pushes the conversation — into areas that feel simultaneously darker and (in tiny, essential ways) more hopeful.

Consider the collection’s almost nominee-long opener, A Restaurant Somewhere Else, probably the most voluptuous and personable of the whole series, followed by Julia, a young, odd chef who Lena hires as the new chef at a well-reviewed London restaurant. We meet Julia’s passive-aggressive mother, the mess her friends are in, her terrible roommate, and Ellery, her charming new boyfriend-turned-chef.

problems are piling up. Does Julia actually like to sleep and work with her boss? Will her roommate ever shut up so they can enjoy the food she prepares? Why is Lena trying to reach out to her on Facebook with a stern warning that will change everything?

Anyone who has recently become obsessed with The Bear knows how much fun it is to eavesdrop on a restaurant kitchen. Calder’s writing carries a similar confidence in bringing home the rules and customs of this universe, beginning with a list of imperatives: “‘Watch your elbows.’ ‘Cut against the grain.’ ‘Sumac lives in the pantry, not on the dresser.’ ‘Next time bring your own roll of knives.’” This staccato brio echoes through the subtitles of the story’s mini-chapters: “The Apartment”, “The Nightcap”, “Size Eight”.

"Reward System: Stories" by Jem Calder

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

But there’s more at stake here than foodie voyeurism. Characters appear and reappear in the stories – Julia, Nick, Teddy, Roos – the whole gang gesturing toward some kind of overall package of ideas about who we are and who we want to be. Be warned: it can feel grim. These young people have terrible jobs. They meet new people primarily through apps. Their parents are no easier to understand or communicate with. The rich are getting richer. What’s next for her? For us? For the planet?

Calder has certainly read his Economist, Guardian and Financial Times; He skillfully arranges lively facts and cutting-edge concepts to serve an atmosphere rich in the ironies (and pollutants) of modern life. Julia, for example, would “go outside for a deep breath of cool, poor quality city air, polluted with microplastics, lead particles, nitrogen and sulfur dioxide; the gray early-evening sky overhead shimmers or just seems to gleam like an endless sterile epoxy kitchen floor.”

A little later, Ellery opens an old wine bottle that is never just a wine bottle. “Remember,” he tells Julia, “you’re drinking thirty years of history here.” What Calder uses to drive us insane, the next sip encompasses “several wars; economic recessions; iconic acts of terrorism; the rise of consumer electronics; Catholic school; children are cruel; Accutane; learn to drive; meals every day; global ecological degradation; Crying in the rain.” These kinds of ruses aren’t just clever; their cumulative effect is disturbing—and then devastating.

So what do these confident and sodden victims of late capitalism envision could feel, well, rewarding? In a playful and devious way, Calder reduces the online dating conversation system to “the standard big three Wikipedia entry subtitle themes of early life, career, and personal life.” On the aforementioned user’s second date, the couple “spent six minutes making eye contact; consumed five rounds of drinks; encountered more than three hundred Ambient, Native and Over ads; were near fourteen people suffering from chronic pain, eleven Christs in statues.” Not good. But inevitable?

Perhaps the most promising preview of Calder’s next book, which I suspect will be a groundbreaking novel – its simple mix of research, tearing wit and social criticism heralding a career to match Rooney’s – is a second story that Almost a novella long, Search Engine Optimization is as deeply funny as it is captivating.

Nick, maybe the best guy in the book, works at a terrible marketing company. He forces his eyes to “scan another sentence from left to right, eliciting a little mammalian whimper—each additional word he reads extracts something vital from him.” Why that? “The creative industry’s bureaucratic business model is to strategically allocate professional resources; the opposite of labour-saving. The more billable time you can devote to a project, the more money the company can legitimately charge its client. The best work ethic you can have here is a bad one.”

Nick dutifully squanders the company’s time, albeit in pursuit of a higher goal – struggling to write a short story. Around him unfolds the tedious and hopeless work of a cubicle maze, forcing otherwise potentially loveable people to live lives of restless desperation. The son of one of the founders is a weirdo who does things during meetings that a mysterious IT guy is secretly watching. Another worker is “one of those people who’s so normal it seems kind of crazy.” Confrontations are brewing.

You may be wondering: how badly do I need to read an ominous series of top-notch short stories set in and around London and featuring internet-savvy young adults whose only hope seems to be in storytelling? Well, another good alternative idea comes to fruition as Julia plots her escape from the straitjacket of the UK and her mother and that creepy Ellery. Guess where Calder’s shrewd, hopeful vision is pointing his most attractive female lead? The blank slate of possibilities, this is…Los Angeles.

Deuel is the author of Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East. Review: Jem Calder’s millennial short stories, “Reward System”

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