Blind faith

Overseeing her house move, the elderly Mrs Carter is worried about her jewelry being damaged in transit. Emma, ​​from the removals firm, tries to reassure her. “It’s all just gold and silver and gemstones!”, she says. “They each have a very uniform, a very well-defined, crystalline structure. They show up really beautifully on the analysis … Very clear, very hard points of data.” Mrs Carter’s belongings are not to be loaded on a lorry and driven to her new home. They are to be teleported there via a machine whose development from an ungainly prototype, resembling “nothing quite so much as a large gray refrigerator”, to the cable-less second-generation model, capable of instantaneously transporting minerals from the moon, links the eleven otherwise discrete stories that comprise the Scottish poet JO Morgan’s first novel.

What marks out Application from other sci-fi treatments of teleportation is its setting in an indeterminate near-future that nonetheless has a strong, Formica-ish whiff of midcentury Britain to it. In the opening story, “Bring It Inside”, Mr Pearson, who works in personnel for the appliance company, has been asked, along with his disapproving wife, to test the prototype at home. It successfully transports a disposable plastic spoon. Mr Pearson sees the potential of the technology for the transportation of raw materials. His wife suspects trickery: a vacuum tube system. The tone is of the suburban surreal, the comedy of offended petit-bourgeois sensibility. We are present at the dawn of a revolutionary technology, but in their apron strings and old leather slippers, unscrewing the machine’s side panel to examine its interior, the Pearsons might be characters from an NF Simpson play, Quatermass meets the kitchen sink: “It looked like a lot of bright red worms, all writhing over one another, seething in a great mass … It was like a highly complicated switchboard.”

Several of the stories grapple with the implications of teleportation. Mrs Carter is convinced that, once transported, her treasured portrait of her grandfather will be a fake, a copy, even if atomically identical. A sinister character called Mr Jacks insists that no travel is involved in the transportation process: anyone teleported by the machine is destroyed by it before being replicated by the receiving unit. It is through these speculations that Morgan mounts his critique of contemporary tech, its abolition of spatial and temporal distance, its replacement of the concrete with the virtual and, perhaps most of all, our unthinking embrace of it. “The real issue is our acceptance of a system that nobody quite understands”, says Mr Jacks. “It’s a matter of blind faith … We’ll go on using it no matter what anyone might say. So what does that make of us?”

So far, so inarguable – and one might further argue that, as a correlative for current technologies, the “machine” is a little on-the-nose, insufficiently inscrutable. This might be more of a serious problem were it not for Morgan’s prose, which, in its poetic precision, its Nicholson Baker-ish hyperattentiveness to the felt surfaces of the world, achieves the oneiric uncanniness that the book’s central premiss lacks. In “Trial & Error”, two kids slip under a fence into a disused airfield to play with a model airplane, “a simple spindly thing, with a slender balsa wood dowel for a fuselage and wings of painted polystyrene foam.” The boy winds the propeller: “The rubber band curled into waves and the waves closed upon one another to form a tight rubber tube, a double helix in which the power for flight resided. When ugly little knots began to form on top of that perfection Lochan stopped”. Again, the donne Risks overdetermination – kids flying a primitive balsa wood plane on an airfield made obsolescent by technology – but the specificity redeems it. How good those “ugly little knots” are: the toy plane is intensely seen. Ultimately, Morgan’s descriptions of the physical world defy the dematerialization effected by technology. Where Application Most successes is in its little riot of the real in the face of digital abstraction.

Space and time are likewise flattened in Jem Calder’s debut book, Reward System, a collection of six marginally marginally more linked stories than Morgan’s in that several of the characters recur throughout. In the first, “A Restaurant Somewhere Else”, Julia, a twentysomething sous-chef at a trendy small-plate restaurant, begins dating the head chef, twenty years her senior. We are probably in London. The setting for the fourth story, “Excuse Me, Don’t I know you?”, a gentrified area that “seemed to be in the process of being re- or hyper-gentrified”, where Julia bumps into an ex carrying a houseplant , seems a lot like the part of Shoreditch near Columbia Road. We could equally, however, be in New York or San Francisco, despite the use of terms such as “pavement”, “supermarket” and “betting shop”. The name of Julia’s restaurant, Cascine, has a distinctly American ring to it. We learn that her ex could never get “acclimated” to FaceTiming. Julia denies being “mad at” a friend. Do British millennials all speak American?

If these mordant, intellectually agile stories of young love, life and work are indeed set in London, then it is the London of a lover of American literature. As such, the idea (promoted in the publisher’s blurb and elsewhere) that Reward System is a notably fresh, ultra-contemporary take on the tech-inflected tribulations of the author’s generation is somewhat misguided. Rather, Calder has adapted the literary modes of previous generations to present circumstances. Comparisons to David Foster Wallace are for emergency use only, but here I must grasp the little hammer and break the glass. “The celerity with which she accordingly swiped right on his profile card”: Calder’s prose splices archaism and tech-speaks in a strongly reminiscent manner of Foster Wallace’s jolie-laide patchwork of registrations. The long fifth story, “Search Engine Optimization”, owes much to Foster Wallace’s unfinished last novel, The Pale King (2011), in its evocation of corporate boredom; the office PA, Chloe Daley, so pretty she “has the power to enter people’s dreams”, is a ringer for Foster Wallace’s “wrist-bitingly” attractive, hyper-idealized female figures such as Meredith Rand in The Pale King and the PGOAT (Prettiest Girl of All Time) in Infinite Jest. There is a recurring and typically Foster-Wallacean concern with feedback loops and, in Calder’s phrase (though it might have been Foster Wallace’s), “ouroboric logic”. That said, for all that Calder borrows from his forebears, he does it exceptionally well. The third story, “Distraction from Sadness Is Not the Same Thing as Happiness”, deftly traces the loops of doubt and self-deception that a “male user” and “female user” – again, names straight out of the Foster Wallace playbook – employ in the task of online dating. As in JO Morgan’s novel, the characters in Reward System are degraded by the technologies they are compelled against their better judgment to use. And to what purpose? For Mr Jacks in Application, the supposed benefits of the machine are illusory. “We’d be better off simply pretending, wouldn’t you say? You know, we could use cardboard boxes and taut string.”

Nat Segnit’s most recent book is Retreat: The risks and rewards of stepping back from the world2021

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