One of the joys of being a professional book critic: the moment when you hit a passage you absolutely know you’re going to painstakingly type into a browser and quote at length to show off an author’s style. One of the joys that comes less often but for that is all the more joyful: when you’re a third of the way into the book and you can’t decide which passage to quote because literally you could lift paragraphs out of this whole thing and each one would be as good as the previous. This happened while I read Hilary Leichter’s debut, Temporary, and I have quoted a lonnnng passage from this book toward the end of the review, which I chose after days of internal debate.
But before we get there, I need to ask you a few questions. Have you ever been mauled by the grinding cogs of a thankless job? Forced yourself to laugh along with a boss’s flirting? Spent days working on a project only to discover that the next project renders the first project irrelevant? Spent days waiting for a temp agency to find you something, anything, so you can make rent this month? Please? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you have been waiting for Hilary Leichter’s debut. If I had to sum it up in a non-spoiler way, I’d say it’s a surreal tale of a temp worker going from job to job with increasingly spec fic results.
But more than that, this book is taking a long hard look at work, the way a job can commodify us and strip us of our humanity, and it does it while being uproariously funny.
Full disclosure: I know Hilary a little bit, we’ve seen each other at events, and she’s a close friend of one of my close friends. However, friendship doesn’t make me want to go house-to-house pressing a book into people’s hands—I’m lazy—but I would walk through neighborhoods handselling this book if that was an option. Now on with the review!
We meet Leichter’s Temp as she starts a new job, filling in for the Chairman of the Board. She reports to an agent named Farren, who has a permanent gig at a temp agency and sends the unnamed Temp on a wild variety of assignments. I’m trying not to give anything away, but just to give you an idea, one gig is filling in for a mate on a pirate ship, and another is on a dirigible that seems to operate outside of any government supervision, and those are two of the less surreal entries. There are several different ghosts in the book, as well as a witch and a dragon. All of these characters, from the mundane to the fantastic, are part of the same matter-of-fact narrative. The Temp accepts circumstances as they are and tries to make the best of each new assignment. And at first I’ll admit that I thought this book was going to be a (damned good) light picaresque. But slowly an undercurrent of desperation shows itself as our hero searches for what she calls “The Steadiness”—a feeling of permanence and job security that is her Grail. The adventures get darker, too, and moments that seems like absurdist gags soon turn out to have very real, highly unexpected consequences.
Is Temporary the Great Late Capitalist Novel? I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last few weeks. I attended a reading for Amber Sparks’s And I Do Not Forgive You, and Sparks, a union advocate in her day job, mentioned how ridiculous it is that people claim not to be defined by their work. Your job is where you spend the vast majority of your time. It shapes your day, your week, how much time you spend with family and friends, how much you can afford to buy, what you eat, where you go out for happy hour drinks, what kind of vacation you can take, if you get to take one at all.
The life I lived when I was a daycare worker is radically different from the one I lived when I washed cars, which in turn is an alternate universe compared to the one I’m living now, as a professional writer and critic. None of those lives had more inherent value. None of them were more important. This current one has more “glamour” than the past ones—I get to go to readings and meet artists and work in a historic building. But at my old gig, on a particularly stormy day, one of my kids pulled a mini sofa cushion in front of the window, led me to it, and sat next to me patting my arm while we watched the snow fall over the woods out back.
So, is this better?
What makes work “good”? What constitutes a “good” job?
What Leichter is getting at in her wonderful, slippery, surreal book is the structure of work. The subflooring and rebar under the details of the job. How work itself makes us feel, how it makes me like this but you like that. She’s also dug into something that is very particular to our current moment by focusing on the life of a temp. Leichter creates a voice that is dry and amused, narrating increasingly ridiculous events with a matter-of-fact tone that is the written equivalent of an ASCII shrug in a Slack channel.
What are you gonna do? Capitalism, amirite?
Dotted across the main story are entries in a larger mythos of temp work, which Leichter creates through a mix of fables and morals that are passed down to the Temp from her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, who were all also Temps. And here, fellow workers, is where we come to that long pullquote I mentioned. I couldn’t pick just one bit, so have it in full:
The gods created the First Temporary so they could take a break. “Let there be some spare time.” They said, “and cover for us, won’t you? Here are all our passwords and credentials. Here is the keycard, and here is a doohickey to clip the keycard to your purse. See? Oh, sorry, here is a purse. Go on, fill it to the brim! Fill it a little more. Yes, it’s supposed to be heavy. Here is your contract, and here is our copier, and here is the shared binder for all known manner of things.”
The First Temporary fell from the husk of a meteor and glowed with no particular ambition. The gods had to pin her down so she would not float away, so distracted was this new kind of soul, so subject to drift. To be fair, they had not yet invented gravity. This was back when toads without occupation soared straight up to the clouds, back when employment was the only kind of honest weight you could apply to a life.
The Temporary spent her first day of work reading the shared binder for all known manner of things. She familiarized herself with each section, each document. Birds, bees, mitochondria. She noted how overfull the binder was even then, even when the world was mostly long stretches of empty surface. What looked blank was actually cluttered with microscopic tendencies toward life. There were infinite itemizations to complete. If the world was already so stuffed, would there ever be room for the First Temporary? The word placement meant something very different back then. It was not a job or a gainful assignment of employment. It was simply a place for each thing, a place to belong. The first Temporary assigned placements for trees and sandy shores, for fossils and tassels. She wondered about her placement, it’s unsteadiness.
“Can I stay? Permanently?” she asked, and the gods just laughed and went to lunch.
At the end of the day, when the gods went to their god homes, the First Temporary thought, What should I do now? The office had a smell that only happened at night. “That’s the smell of innovation,” the gods had explained. She found one corner of the office that didn’t smell so much and sat there for a while. It wasn’t really an office, not the way most people today would picture an office. It was a collection of matter and inertia that suggested the sensation of work.
She activated her keycard and swiped herself into existence.
Isn’t it great??? And isn’t it about time the contractors and temps of this world got a mythology of their own? If this isn’t enough there’s an excerpt over at Electric Literature that would like some of your time.
By taking her Temp to extremes, Leichter is able to puncture the utter absurdity of work itself: all these arbitrary rules we’ve made about what constitutes a day’s work, the meaningless hierarchies, the casual sexual harassment, the constant cycle of working too hard to prove yourself only to be told, again and again, that there’s no room for promotion. This also highlights the particular of the Temp experience, and the way that when you’re filling in for a person, not just a role, it can shake your own self-perception in surprising ways.
If a person can just be replaced by another person, what does that say about any of us? Can a partner be replaced? A mother? A beloved son? I have people ask me sometimes if I’m a temp, if I want to temp more, etc. as though “temping” itself is a profession. As though you’re not fulfilling all sorts of different tasks. But then temping is its own thing. I’ve done it a few times, when you go in and have a specific project, with a set end-date, and there’s an art to being friendly with coworkers while not displacing the person you’re temping for. A certain type of light lunch conversation you can have with people who you’re only going to see for a few months. What kind of mental toll is taken by reminding yourself, over and over, that you’re impermanent?
By the end, Temporary has wrestled with all of these questions, but in such fun and surprising ways that you might not even notice how emotional you’re getting until after you’ve punched out of the book.
Temporary by Hilary Leichter is out now from Coffee House Press.