Reward System by Jem Calder

Jem Calder’s short story collection/novel hybrid is a brilliant and frustrating account of contemporary malaise, social disconnection, pointless work, and the mechanisation of the human being

In fictions of the future, automation generally leads to one of two places. Sometimes it is to emancipation from labour and material struggles, in more utopian accounts. The more dystopian (or, some would argue, realistic) suggest it would presage a return to a semi-feudal poverty for the non-owning classes. Yet Jem Calder’s Reward System explores the arguable reality that the processes of automation, data and algorithms have been refracted in upon the self; we optimise and self-evaluate, increasingly treating ourselves as machines. Even exhaustion and burnout are sometimes framed as needing to recharge our batteries.

Calder’s subtly off-kilter structure embodies a sense of being caught between things and compartmentalised. Billed as a ‘set of […] fictions’ rather than either a short story collection or novel, Reward System mostly satisfies as both – even its fringe narratives epitomising the book’s recurring concerns: the infiltration of all corners of life by technology, the difficulty of human communication, and the contemporary workplace. The stories revolve loosely around Julia and Nick, formerly a couple during university, who navigate the modern metropolis and occasionally re-enter each other’s orbits. The first story focuses squarely on Julia’s work and romantic life, while the second follows Nick’s unhappy travail through social awkwardness at a party. Beyond these, the rules of engagement become slightly unclear. The surprisingly touching third story seems to be about neither character – only ‘the male user’ and ‘the female user’ of a dating app during a short-lived fling, while the fifth involves Nick only incidentally, telling us little more about him than his surname. Perhaps it is a deliberate effect of Calder’s writing that I spent much of the duration searching for connection – to learn more about these characters, who at times burn with life, though seem somewhat remote.

Reward System is set in an ambiguous present day, a time firmly in the shadow of an apocalyptic future rather than the past. Its often detachedly omniscient narrator (mostly in the third person, though Nick narrates stories two and six) sets the scene as ‘a December fifty-seven harvests prior to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ projected start date for the era of total global soil infertility’. A pervasive eco-fatalism recurs throughout the book, but it is also a theme Calder interrogates – mapping the threat of global environmental collapse onto interpersonal relationships. A chance encounter between Nick and Julia is sustained not by years of shared experience or mutual interests, but by a reversion to old habits: discussing articles they had read – either on wealth and inequality, unsustainable use of land and fossil fuels, or often the links between both. The end of the world as we know it is a defence against social anxiety.

So too are various other staple malaises expressed and explored – less as comments on the social ills themselves than as part of character neuroses. The narrator notes that Julia ‘had liked saying the impromptu, pornography-appropriated things she’d said’ while sleeping with her boss-turned-boyfriend, Ellery – articulating a thorny mixture of ethical questions over pleasure and the production of desire. Yet though Reward System is suffused with a hyperawareness of problems and the problematic, knowledge is powerless. The characters consume regular updates on every social problem, yet they are largely unable to do anything about it or find ways of translating their feelings into meaningful action. Wry lines such as ‘the overcast midday sky was the colour of the Financial Times’ speak to their informed cultural references, yet they float through a reality in which everything is tragic – and tragically unavoidable.

Julia and Ellery visit ‘a Sackler-funded contemporary arts space’, while Nick surveys an affluent suburb which has been ‘enriched by electric-car charging ports and anti-homeless architecture’. The acerbic tone contains a critique, yet this is largely aimed at the general state of things. The effect is slightly wearying, especially compared to recent works such as Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s realistic yet optimistic There Are More Things, which presents social problems (especially relating to issues of housing, gentrification and identity) to be the fuel of activism rather than the fodder for despair. Arguably Calder’s framing does the opposite. Instead of calling out and petitioning organisations to divest from Sackler investment, for example, their presence is treated as a regrettably immovable part of how things are.

Naturally, as a book about contemporary life, the terrain of the contemporary workplace comes under scrutiny – first the realm of service labour, in a restaurant, and then the digitised labour of semi-creative industries – whose ‘bureaucratic business model […] is to strategically over-allocate professional resources’. Calder explains that, rather than maximising efficiency, ‘the more billable time you can expend on a project, the more money the company can justifiably charge to its client.’ Thus, ‘The best work ethic you can have around here is a bad one.’ So much of what they do is ‘just busywork’ – the kind of pointless non-work labour described by David Graeber as ‘bullshit’. Yet this too is a despairing diagnosis, rather than a call for galvanising action. This is a financialised world in which politics defines everything, yet everything is rendered apolitical.

Reward System comes emblazoned with the endorsement of Sally Rooney, yet for much of the book I wondered if the narrator’s laconic detachment (laced with barbs of emotional reflection and acid wit) was somehow a deliberate, spiky parody of her distinctive style. The coolly impersonal phrasing seems like an observational comic at their most itemising – Julia watches ‘prestige television streaming on her laptop’, while ‘Ellery entered the kitchen texting, artificial keystroke sounds issuing from his touchscreen device.’ Later, a ‘celebrity’ is defined not by their occupation, talents or name, but simply the fact of their fame. Sometimes smart, contemporary observations – such as the exposing quality of one’s recommended watchlist – are cloaked in similar distance; Julia surveys a ‘sidebar of algorithmically recommended YouTube content’ on Ellery’s laptop. Everything is data now, even the building blocks of stories.

The book’s first section, ‘A Restaurant Somewhere Else’, is by some margin the most compelling – powered by a steadily progressing romance and simmering with a low-key sense of danger. The lack of Julia as a focal point can be felt. Only when she is out of focus does the little free-indirect colour she has previously added to the narrative voice emerge. For instance, in a thirty-year-old wine she tastes ‘multiple wars; economic recessions; iconic acts of terror, [and] the rise of consumer electronics’, among much else. Nick, meanwhile, seems frustrated by his own blandness, a curious subject for a character study, but not one which is necessarily riveting. He imagines writing as a form of escape from his life’s disappointments, but we never learn much about the imaginary worlds he creates – whether they are richly different from his real life, or in a similar key to Reward System itself. Perhaps we are to wonder if Nick and Julia will, after colliding on a few random occasions, end up together again, yet Calder denies us such a neat happy ending. One of its least novelistic gestures might be its refusal of closure; the book ends in rupture – with Julia deciding to leave for Toronto to live with her sister and reboot her life, though both stuck in lockdown for now and Nick developing Coronavirus symptoms. Narrated from Nick’s perspective, the sense of grim abandonment – though she has no obligations to him – feels rather bleak.

Late in Reward System, the usually sterile narrator lapses into the second person, and you sense Calder in a more confrontational register. ‘Take yourself, for example’, he writes – about ‘your first smartphone’. He contends ‘you only checked it once every, what, like couple of hours?’ The sudden personal, conversational quality of both the address and the tone is startling. ‘Cut to now. When was the last time you read a full short story without, at some point, taking an intermission to check your device; refresh your feeds?’ Yet this probing interrogates the failure of the optimised individual to maintain an attention span while also monitoring many things at once. It plays as a slightly shallow gotcha, if wryly written.

Perhaps one of the novel’s most interesting contentions is that most forms of resistance have been assimilated by the mainstream. Calder writes, of one of his office workers in ‘Search Engine Optimisation’, that ‘the more she talks, the harder it becomes for her to actually tell if she even really cares about the issue, or if she’s just reciting a series of prefabricated talking points that’ve been fed to her via a giant cross-media broadcasting apparatus.’ Perhaps this is why Nick values writing so highly as it, in theory, is something original, personal, not reconstituted. So much has been swallowed by a technologized mindset which supposes that humans should learn to become more like AIs rather than just AIs becoming more human. The third story, which Calder writes almost from the perspective of a dating app algorithm, describes how ‘the female user paid close attention to each of her embarrassing human surfaces’. ‘She was working on herself, upgrading by increments.’ Humans ourselves have been made not only into machines but sites of labour, where we reify the impulses of capitalism in our own physical and conscious identity. Yet, for a hopeful answer of where we go from here, you will have to look elsewhere.

Reward System

Written by Jem Calder, Cover Design by Luke Bird, Cover Image adapted from an original by Yulia Ryabokon/Alamy
Published by Faber & Faber

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