You Better Work

Temporary BY Hilary Leichter. Emily Books / Coffee House Press. 208 pages. $17.

Though Hilary Leichter’s new novel Temporary takes place in the world of work, it’s not really about money. Instead, the book regards employment as world forming. It follows a young temp whose one desire is to find a regular job—what she calls reaching “the steadiness.” When she’s not employed, she’s called “temporary”; when she is, she takes the name (and birthday) of whomever she’s filling in for. Though we don’t really have a hero (it’s hard to be a protagonist in a system of self-negation), the story is still a quest narrative: The unnamed temp wants to find the perfect match.

Her supervisor at the agency is Farren, a “properly moisturized beacon of confidence and self-care” who assigns her existence, one placement at a time. Made up of short sections named after the increasingly bizarre roles she fills, Temporary reads like a riddle. In “City Work,” Farren assigns the temp “those city-living jobs that make a city pretty”: work that sometimes mirrors the drudgery of real life. She washes windows of “skyscrapers that truly scraped the sky” and fills in for mannequins at a local department store. She pounds the pavement (“literally, with a jackhammer”), paints murals, and hails taxis. Going above and beyond, she plays “the role of comforting stranger, which isn’t a paid placement but one I feel fit to cover nonetheless.” In this section, she is also tasked with carrying around the ashes of the Chairman of the Board from a “very, very major corporation.” “He was a man about town,” Farren clarifies, tapping a glittery fingernail on her desk. The Chairman becomes a throughline of the book.

As the novel progresses, it is clear that gender, too, is a job (and an absurd one at that). In “First Work,” temp work seems to be matrilineal. For the unnamed narrator’s first placement, she opened and then closed the doors in “a lovely little house” every forty minutes, “every day, all day long, until otherwise notified.” (In the house across the street, her best friend, Anna, did the same—but with drawers.) In “Home Work,” the job is mothering a little boy, cooking and cleaning, scolding and punishing, and sometimes—“for no reason”—getting sad and staring out the window. Sex is part of the workday, too (though only alluded to in puns and metaphors); motherhood is labor (pregnancies are measured in hours—like wages—not weeks); and dating is instrumentalized (the temp has eighteen boyfriends, including a caffeinated boyfriend, life coach boyfriend, and favorite boyfriend, who “devotes himself exclusively to pumpkin spice . . . in his cocktails and his coffee and his attitude”).

The responsibilities extend beyond women’s work, though, because Farren’s assignments are not restricted by anything resembling realism. At one point, lost at sea, the temp finds herself “holding hands with other rock dwellers, all of us flat on our backs and strapped in place under a large net.” A man next to her, Barnacle Toby, explains, “We’re filling in for a species on the brink of extinction. . . . I’m an ecological savior.” For Leichter’s characters, work determines personhood: Even environmental degradation—evidence of capitalism’s destruction—is an opportunity for personal development. The book sits in a constellation of works by writers like Jen George, Eugene Lim, and even Kurt Vonnegut, who play with puns and archetypes in order to parse capitalism’s marriage with identity. Quippy prose and surreal narratives shift the focus away from individual actors, distancing these works from the traditional requirements of character and plot development. These fictions portray the exploitation, manipulation, and outright abuse of late capitalism in ways that a memoir—or even a “realistic” novel—could not.

The most memorable recent example is Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods. The 2012 book about a temp agency that assigns women to work as recipients of sexual harassment seems to be a forerunner of Leichter’s world. Filled with puns, pep talk, and can-do clichés, both books flirt with a pedagogical tone (DeWitt’s widely-acclaimed The Last Samurai also takes the form of an instructional manual and quest narrative). In novels about precarity, mottos and aphorisms are the voice of bureaucracy, enforcing the rehearsed optimism that the gig economy demands. Puns, though, have multiple—often conflicting—meanings, reminding readers of previously unconsidered possibilities of language and thought. A collage of puns, one-liners, and familiar scripts points to the tension between official stories and the many possibilities of creative ones.

In Temporary, this is most evident in jobs that reference traditional story lines: work that seems taken from the past or stolen from fairy tales. In “Water Work,” the temp fills in for Darla, a pirate with “mermaid hair” whose ship recently rebranded from “a company of internet pirates” to a crew searching for “adventure capital.” In “Blood Work,” she assists Carl, an artisanal-panini-loving assassin who schedules his kills so he can take long weekends. Carl is “something of an entrepreneur” and, eventually, recruits a silver-eyed bank robber named Laurette to join his murder business with a waterfront view. “Location, location, location,” Carl explains. In “Paper Work,” the temp distributes pamphlets for a witch—her preferred title is “Director of Pamphlets—whose “hair shines like a wave of charitable donations,” until the job is not done properly and the director morphs into a dragon. Throughout, there are sardonic references to ghosts and cowboys, genies and even the old woman who lived in a shoe.

These fairy tale and pop-culture references point to the paradoxically dystopian. It’s not surprising, then, that in the novel’s seventh section, “Sky Work,” the temp ends up at the Agency for Fugitive Temps (AFT): a blimp “the size of the moon” from which terminated temps drop bombs on predetermined locations. Once again, Leichter points out the violent underbelly of ostensibly utopian projects. Having finally inherited the Chairman’s job, the temp is left alone amid the wreckage of society. Reaching the steadiness means “actual forever permanence.”

Of course, we already know that capitalism is bad for us. Last I heard, an ex was making music for one of those entirely CGI Instagram stars and a friend was renting out bunnies for kids’ birthday parties and then, later, selling the rabbits as restaurant meat. And that’s just the beginning: Workers pee in bottles out of fear of taking breaks, debts remain after we die, and more and more of us depend on gigs that don’t cover health care or retirement. All-encompassing and numbing, capitalism relies on the obvious—yet somehow elusive—fact that the current order of the world is not logical for anyone.

In Leichter’s world—which, like in most fairy tales, is uncannily like our own—“capture isn’t violent in the traditional sense. No one is outwardly harmed, but there’s harm everywhere.” While the morals of specific fairy tales are up for interpretation (Hansel and Gretel could be a harbinger to not trust strangers, but it also might be a story about poverty and parental abandonment), the genre as a whole is concerned with truth and disguise. If Temporary is a story we’ve heard before, it’s also about how we explain unexplainable things.

Taliah Mancini is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.