Iin recent years, much of the most innovative work in short story English has come from Ireland, from writers such as Colin Barrett, Wendy Erskine and Nicole Flattery. The new early collections of talented British authors Saba Sams and Gurnaik Johal showed the unmistakable influence of their Irish peers. 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 to work today, on both sides of the Irish Sea.
Strictly speaking, Reward System is not quite a collection of short stories. It’s a book of six tales, most of which are loosely linked by the reappearance of two main characters, and one of which – about a kitchen helper in a restaurant kitchen who has an affair with her older boss. old – is long enough to be classified as new. But as up-to-date as these stories seem, Reward System is firmly in the tradition of fictional miniaturism: Calder’s stories are all granular portraits of micro-interactions between people in seemingly mundane environments, operated on six inches of LCD glass.
The world of books is that of young Londoners: compressed tenants, addicted to smartphones, awake (but, more often than not, worried that they are not awake enough). They are not, it must be said, contented souls: they tend to spend their working hours in “underpaid desk jobs in purgatory” and their free time attending vaguely humiliating social gatherings or romantic downward spirals mediated by “algorithm-based dating apps” that make them feel like “holographic” versions of themselves. One of them, at his desk, concludes that he has “formatted his whole personality around the feeling of just sitting here, letting his precious moments of life pass by as if it meant nothing”. Another has a feeling of “tourist irresponsibility towards a life that seems to end at the limits of his field of vision”. Calder’s view of contemporary reality seems several notches darker and more jaded than, say, Flattery’s or Sally Rooney’s.
So why doesn’t a single page here seem dour or depressing to read? Quite simply because Calder is a superb writer, by turns funny, graceful, tangy cynical, lyrical – and always verbally adroit and inventive. It can make the boredom of office life fascinating, as in search engine optimization; he can liven up a desolate house party, as in Better Off Alone; and his depictions of loneliness and dissatisfaction, as in virtually all of these stories, leave the reader feeling understood – or, as his characters would say, seen. One of his favorite techniques consists in defamiliarizing actions or ordinary objects with a comically precise description: a character does not use a vaporizer but “cartridges of glycerin-based syrup containing nicotine salts from a vaporizer of nicotine shape and weight identical to a standard USB flash drive”.
But he can also write simply and beautifully, with a keen eye for the natural world and human behavior. An “overcast midday sky” is “the color of the Financial Times”; the rain falls “invisible in the air but manifesting itself as a constellation of discolored discs on the road and pavement”. And there is a real tenderness in the way it follows its two kinds of protagonists, Nick and Julia, once lovers and whose orbits cross several times.
A recurring theme in Calder’s writing is secrecy. Its characters are often worried – though sometimes comforted – by the fact that they are all constantly tracked by apps that know them better than they know themselves. Third-person fiction is, in a sense, an application that practices blatant invasions of privacy. Reward System shows us its characters in all forms of compromising activity: one pees in another’s bathroom sink, for no particular reason; we spend hours filming ourselves on our laptop mimicking ordinary activities, then looking back; everyone is stalking each other online.
But there is compassion, even love, in the way Calder describes these shameful moments, as if by observing them with such empathy he restores the integrity of his characters. And sometimes the narrator seems to step away from the characters and leave them, for a moment, with the dignity of an inviolable solitude – as when a woman switches off her smartphone and we simply read: under her chin as she stared at the passing world and considering its place in it, the algorithm could not tell.