Do our jobs define us as people? Published last March, Hilary Leichter’s novel Temporary follows one woman striving to find herself as she works one temporary job after another—a story especially relevant as workers face the crisis of the pandemic.
Temporary work often means administrative or secretarial roles in offices, but in the fantastical world of Temporary, the unnamed protagonist finds herself in jobs ranging from shoe collection organizer and skyscraper window cleaner to chairman of the board, pirate, and even an assassin’s assistant. She works these myriad jobs—regardless of her own feelings—in hope of achieving steadiness or “permanent work.” After every job, regardless of the tasks (shining shoes, being a barnacle) the temp agency hiring manager always reminds the protagonist to update her resume with all of her new skills.
Language that works
Leichter cleverly plays with the terminology of employment and the structures of the hiring process. When the protagonist fills in for pirates, she finds out that they were originally software pirates, but decided to drop a single word for an entirely new career. The pirates are off to find venture capital, or as the captain calls it, “adventure capital.”
Leichter’s poetic, languid prose adds to the story’s otherworldly feeling, with beautiful long sentences—some taking up half a page—that take you to unexpected places. Mantras repeat throughout the book, but gain new meaning each time.
Working in America
While most temporary workers go home to their lives after the working day is done, Leichter’s protagonist does not simply do a job, but becomes it: mimicking the personality of the pirate she replaces, or learning to smoke, reflecting that she’ll likely have to learn to stop smoking for another job. She leaves her apartment for months, possibly years on end for each job. “Nothing is more personal than doing your job,” goes one mantra in the book, and the protagonist and the world she’s in take that literally.
Even her personal life is fleeting. She has a telephone book of boyfriends—distinguished by names like “gym rat boyfriend,” “favorite boyfriend,” or “tallest boyfriend”—but permanence with any of them does not appear to be an option. Every interaction she has with them is a memory or a distant telephone call; in the course of her story, she spends almost no time with them.
In this outlandish world of pirates, dragons, and witches, there’s a sharp critique of work culture in the United States. Just as Temporary’s protagonist becomes each role she is assigned, we often define ourselves in relation to our work instead of as a whole human being. As many professional sectors collapsed in the pandemic, some people scorned themselves for their drop in productivity, even though they were facing incredible social and economic instability. Others tried to decouple their self-worth from their productivity; detaching their identity from their job.
The wish for steadiness or a single full-time job in Temporary is a reminder of what the 21st-century economy keeps holding over people. And it’s also notable that the vast majority of characters who have permanent roles in the book’s world are male, while women tend to work most of the temporary jobs, pointing to the historical instability of employment for women. According to the National Women’s Law Center, women make up two-thirds of the 23 million people in low-wage jobs in this country and earn 15 percent less than their male counterparts. Aidst the pandemic, and especially its school closures, women have been disproportionately affected as they have been forced to leave the workforce or go part-time to take care of their children.
Winning several accolades, including Publisher’s Weekly’s Best Books of 2020 list, Temporary may not have predicted the pandemic, but it’s certainly a book for our times and our working lives.
Image description: The cover of the book Temporary, by Hilary Leichter. It has an illustration of a woman with pink skin and black hair on a yellow background. She has a worried expression and the mask of another face balanced on the top of her head, as if she’s putting it on or off.
What, When, Where
Temporary. By Hilary Leichter. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, March 3, 2020. 208 pages, paperback. $15.59. Get it at bookshop.org.