Review: Reward System, Gem Calder

Published in The Observer on May 2, 2022

These six short stories are almost a novel, interlinked by characters who drift and reconnect with one another in the way friends do, living a big-city, post-university life. And this is Calder’s canvas: young adulthood, and a generation simultaneously bound to one another via social media and yet lost in a disconnected modern world.

It comes, helpfully, with a glowing quote from that generation’s chronicler-in-chief, Sally Rooney, who calls Reward System “an exhilarating and beautiful book”.

They’re not necessarily the two adjectives I find myself reaching for. Calder’s stories are impressively detailed in their fine-grain attention to the banal stuff-of-life and his characters’ inner agonies – from panics over not being able to remember if you locked a door to awkward social interactions in the workplace. But he writes with a cool, contemporary detachment rather than much heat.

At its worst, this can mean an exhausting focus on the dead-air of city life – I could have done without the deep dive into the pointlessness of corporate office culture in Search Engine Optimisation, which says little new.

At his best, however, Calder proves a tender chronicler of the digital age, tunnelling into what it feels like, moment to moment, to navigate dating apps and YouTube viewing histories and neglected WhatsApp messages. Distraction from Sadness Is Not the Same Thing As Happiness takes the reader inside an attempt to present “an exaggeratedly carefree, pretty, lite-version” of the self on a date. It is a remorseless excavation of the internal experience of harshly judging your own performance and the other person’s (although Calder’s device of only naming the characters “the male user” and “the female user” quickly grows tiresome).

It’s not all harsh judgments, though: I longed to give both of Calder’s main characters, whose perspectives we get more or less of at various points, a good, hard hug. There’s Julia, a self-doubting chef, and her ex, Nick, a wannabe 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, clocking in at more than 100 pages.

It’s certainly the most fully realised, charting Julia’s unhealthy relationship with her boss, from creeping crush to a series of billowing red flags, told in short, atomised chapters. These are given titles that range from practical (Hours Later) to drolly emotive (How We Fail Others and Also Ourselves). Julia is extremely concerned with hiding what she believes to be her “true nature” – “a crier, pleaser and worrier” – and forms an easy target for a controlling relationship, although Calder charts the entanglement with believable subtlety, and without judgment. Each mini-chapter is a small step along a journey that – for a while at least – feels depressingly inevitable.

In Better Off Alone, Nick is similarly uncertain of himself; on the way to a party, he reminds himself “of advice I’d read online about how to maximalise my likeability”, before getting blackout drunk. The book ends with a chapter set in lockdown, Julia and Nick facetiming and feeling like the future has been “indefinitely postponed”.

This sense of going nowhere is well captured, but ultimately it’s shared with the collection. Calder’s stories don’t really go anywhere – like life, and like many relationships, of course. It just doesn’t necessarily make for a reading experience that is, well, especially exhilarating.

What Time Is Love? by Holly Williams is published by Orion on 26 May

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