The six stories in Jem Calder’s debut collection, Reward System, paint our contemporary world in the hues of a dystopia. The tales play out across greater London—although without knowing that at the onset, it would be easy to confuse the setting as any major Western city. The same dilemmas facing Calder’s young characters could be found in New York or Toronto or Paris: the aimlessness of youth, technology-induced loneliness, isolation, housing, career, love. Modernity is the antagonist here, from technology to capitalism, and the world these characters inhabit threaten them in existential ways.
The stories are linked by a shared cohort of characters—primarily Julia and Nick, former friends and former lovers—but are otherwise disparate and distinct in style and narrative point of view. Thematically, they broadly examine the challenges of youth as the characters evolve and mature, and throughout the stories, the characters revisit the contemporary experience of dating and falling in love. Unifying the stories is a collective sense of desperation. The modern world presses down on these people until they are crushed.
The first third of the collection is given over to “A Restaurant Somewhere Else,” with the story holding the presence and gravitas of a novella. Julia, a young chef, has taken a job at a high-end restaurant before finding herself involved with her boss, Ellery, a somewhat older man. This story is broken up into brief vignettes with titles, like chapters, and each brief scene propels the characters toward their imminent conclusion: the messy unhappiness of early middle age. The story examines power dynamics in the workplace, in relationships, in experience and age. It reads with the ease of a Sally Rooney novel, and similarly throws unhappy young people into a maelstrom of their own creation. Julia considers the consequences of sleeping with her boss, and goes through with it despite herself. She sets herself up for her unhappiness—and the lesson here is that her actions have consequences.
Julia ties together the collection, and even in her absence, Nick feels her presence looming over him. Nick grapples with the same challenges she does, seeking career, love, and happiness, and how each of those pieces fit together. He drinks too much, works a dead end job, feels poor. In “Better Off Alone,” Nick, the drunk narrator, arrives at a friend’s birthday party in the suburbs. “Isn’t everyone here rich?” Nick observes. He’s a writer, or wants to be, or at least he writes. Calder avoids painting the writerly life with any kind of romantic hues. Nick’s trajectory is not joyful, and success is elusive. Meanwhile, so many of his friends at Benny’s birthday have struck it rich. This world is a dystopia, after all.
Nick and Julia close out the collection in “The Foreseeable,” when Nick, also narrating, attempts a video phone call over FaceTime with her. Technology proves an adversary as network connection problems disrupt their call. By now, a global pandemic has cost Julia her restaurant job and she’s returned to her mother’s home to plot out her next steps. Nick, too, has returned to his parents’ home. Unlike Julia, furloughed when the pandemic closed down restaurants, Nick was furloughed before then. The pandemic disguises his redundancy. Calder treats the pandemic as commonplace, less a specific event and more a mundane mechanism of plot, a device rather than a spectacle. As Nick describes it, “rarely did we talk about the virus directly—or about the unprecedented peacetime measures being undertaken to contain its spread—although, of course, it dominated our conversations.” COVID isn’t mentioned by name but living through the last three years takes the guesswork out of it. The pandemic serves these characters as a moment to reset, to reexamine their needs and wants. At the story’s end, Julia emerges from lockdown with a new career and the reader is left to wonder whether she, like so many young people, has abandoned her dreams for an ordinary office job.
Throughout the collection, Calder adopts a distant, anthropological tone whenever the narrative voice is in the third-person perspective. This choice distances readers from the characters, and it transforms an ordinary observation into something greater. For instance, the banalities of white-collar office life are highlighted in “Search Engine Optimization,” which features coworkers on a Friday engaged in such tasks as gathering in a conference room and eating Danishes from the break room. Over the course of the day, readers follow the trivial dramas of average people on an average day in their lives. Constrained by the location and time, these ordinary moments lack splashy plot, but Calder manages to wring out nominal amusement with a droll narrative voice.
In “Distraction From Sadness Is Not the Same Thing As Happiness,” Calder similarly captures an Attenborough-esque style. The story begins with an algorithm, and soon a man and a woman begin dating. The narrative voice creates an objectivity mimicking a National Geographic documentary: “As the male user observed the female user’s profile, so too did the algorithm observe him; surveilled the way he, predictably, paused longest on her lone bikini pic while cycling through the cloud-stored images retrieved from the algorithm-based dating app’s central image database.” Calder twists this romance plot into a means of examining ourselves and how technology further distances us from each other. Instead of civilizing us, the app has made us more like wild animals under observation by a wildlife documentary crew.
There are few elements that seem unresolved. In “A Restaurant Somewhere Else,” the story opens by telling the reader it takes place fifty-seven harvests prior to “projected start date for the era of total global soil infertility.” The statement hangs over the narrative as Julia falls in love with Ellery. Although the imminent failure of the soil is not revisited, the statement does help construct the concept of modernity as dystopia. Modernity is on a crash course towards the end, and even when we’re told to expect it, we can easily forget about the eventual catastrophe awaiting us.
Calder seems to have wanted to write a novel telling one continuous narrative following Julia and Nick through the first years of their adulthood. The first, long story in the collection reads like exactly that, with the remaining stories supporting it. This criticism shouldn’t diminish those other stories which all work as standalone pieces. The choice does allow some narrative liberty. For instance, the narrative tone works well in “Distraction From Sadness Is Not The Same Thing As Happiness,” but it wouldn’t hold up for a novel-length work. Likewise, “The Foreseeable” benefits from brevity, the back and forth through the broken Facetime connection suited to an epilogue, but unable to withstand the duration of a novel’s length. Perhaps it’s also worth saying that the distinction between story collection and novel is a product of marketing rather than artistic license, and trying to make that distinction is a silly exercise. What matters is that the work is successful as a whole and as individual parts. When the stories stand alone, they illustrate the isolation of technology and the melancholy of youth. But together they work in tandem to describe the modern condition.
Reward System approaches the modern world with skepticism. The outlook looks more dystopian than not. Technology is threatening, capitalism unjust, and despite the uncertainty of the future, sadness, desperation, and mediocrity seem likely ends. Calder is not writing an upbeat romance, but does speak to a kind of truth for newly minted adults.
Reward System: Stories
By Jem Calder
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Published July 19, 2022