Hilary Leichter’s debut novel grew out of a short story published in the literary magazine n+1 in 2012. The gig economy and its attendant anxieties have only expanded since.
“I have a shorthand kind of career,” says the protagonist. “Short tasks, short stays, short skirts.” We never learn her name: she is everywoman and Nobody, anonymously drifting to the next destination like Odysseus slipping away from the Cyclops.
The temp takes on a series of odd jobs, with an emphasis on the odd. She works on a blimp. She fills in for a ghost, opening and closing doors at regular intervals. She covers for the chairman of Major Corp, who asks her to carry his ashes around after his death so he can still be “a man about town”.
She takes a job on a pirate ship, subject to a confidentiality agreement. (“My new crew was once a company of internet pirates, but they rebranded.”) She’s employed by an assassin — “a task that lasts” — who is hoping to take his murder business public.
Released in the US last year, Temporary was the final title published by Emily Books, whose mission was to “make weird books by women”. (As these authors became more marketable to mainstream publishers, it was increasingly difficult for an independent imprint to compete.)
The book joins an emerging genre of millennial workplace novels, sometimes with a surreal bent, which includes Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018), Ling Ma’s Severance (2018), Halle Butler’s The New Me (2019) and Kikuko Tsumura’s (translated by Polly Barton) There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job (2020).
While some of the female characters in these novels yearn to erase their existence, what Leichter’s heroine is after is permanence — “a job that stays”.
A friend who has achieved the Holy Grail of “the steadiness” extends the same smug platitudes offered to those looking for love: “When you know, you just know . . . You can’t rush these things.” With clear parallels drawn between the dating and job markets, the temp’s love life is just as cobbled together as her CV.
Eighteen simultaneous boyfriends — all company men enjoying the stability she craves — fulfil various needs. There’s the handy boyfriend, the culinary boyfriend, the insurance salesman who “specializes in [her] human worth”. None of the boyfriends are long-term: “They have their nights of the week, their weeks of the month.”
Romantic love is not the only relationship at risk in a transient life. Hired by a young boy who believes his mother has been abducted by pirates, the temp’s brief includes cooking, cleaning and story-telling. She is also “supposed to yell for no reason, get sad, and stare out the window”. Connections with colleagues in the endless game of musical swivel chairs are also, by definition, ephemeral.
In the tradition of satirists from Jonathan Swift to Helen DeWitt, Leichter builds a world that’s absurd, but familiar enough to give pause. Weighty questions underlie the wackiness as the temp’s misadventures roll towards a resolution. Can 23 jobs and 18 boyfriends add up to a whole? As the signposts of adulthood shift, at what point does becoming settle into being? If employment is no longer “the only kind of honest weight” applied to a life, what might act as an anchor in its stead?
“It’s not personal,” the temp is told as she’s thrown overboard the pirate ship when her services are no longer needed. “It’s just a job.”
Temporary, by Hilary Leichter, Faber, RRP£12.99, 192 pages
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