Reward System by Jem Calder review – Generation Zzzz | Fiction

JThese six short stories are almost a novel, intertwined by characters drifting and reconnecting like friends, living a post-college life in a big city. And this is Calder’s web: adult youth and a generation simultaneously connected to each other via social media and yet lost in a disconnected modern world. It comes with, helpfully, a glowing quote from this generation’s chief columnist, Sally Rooney, who calls reward system “an exhilarating and beautiful book”.

Those aren’t necessarily the two adjectives I’m looking for. Calder’s stories are remarkably detailed in their fine attention to the mundane substance of life and the inner agonies of his characters – from panic at not being able to remember if you’ve locked a door to awkward social interactions at the place of work. But he writes with a cool, contemporary detachment rather than a lot of warmth.

At worst, it can mean an exhausting focus on the dead air of city life – I could have done without diving deep into the pointlessness of corporate office culture in Search Engine Optimization, which says nothing of new.

At his best, however, Calder proves to be a tender chronicler of the digital age, exploring what it feels like, moment to moment, to navigate dating apps and YouTube viewing histories and overlooked whatsapp messages. The distraction of sadness is not the same as happiness takes the reader on an attempt to present “an exaggeratedly carefree, pretty, lite version” of self on a date. It’s a remorseless excavation of internal experience to harshly judge your own performance and that of the other person (although Calder’s device of naming only the characters “the male user” and the “female user ” quickly becomes boring).

It’s not all harsh judgments, though: I felt like giving Calder’s two main characters, whose perspectives we more or less get at various points, a good, hard hug. There’s Julia, a self-doubting boss, and her ex, Nick, an aspiring writer who works in a terrible office and drinks too much. Julia gets the first and by far the longest story, A Restaurant Somewhere Else, at over 100 pages.

It’s certainly the most fully realized, charting Julia’s unhealthy relationship with her boss, from creeping crush to a series of inflated red flags, told in short, atomized chapters. These are given titles ranging from practical (Hours later) to comically emotional (How we fail others and ourselves too). Julia is extremely careful to hide what she believes to be her “true nature” – “a crier, a pleasure and a concern” – and makes an easy target for a controlling relationship, although Calder traces the entanglement with subtlety. believable and non-judgmental. Each mini-chapter is a small step on a journey that – for a time at least – seems hopelessly inevitable.

In Better Off Alone, Nick is also unsure of himself; on the way to a night out, he reminisces about “advice I had read online on how to maximize my likability,” before getting drunk. The book ends with a chapter taking place in lockdown, with Julia and Nick coping and feeling like the future has been “postponed forever.”

This feeling of going nowhere is well captured, but ultimately shared with the collection. Calder’s stories really don’t go anywhere — like life, and like many relationships, of course. That doesn’t necessarily make for a reading experience that’s, well, particularly exhilarating.

What time is love? by Holly Williams is published by Orion on May 26

reward system by Jem Calder is published by Faber (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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