Temporary, Hilary Leichter (Coffee House Press 978-1566895668, $16.95, 208pp, tp) March 2020.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve reviewed several novels that borrow from the genre toolkit to critique modern-day capitalism. Ling Ma’s 2018 novel Severance (a book that has seen a massive upsurge in popularity for reasons that will soon become obvious) uses an apocalyptic pandemic, born in the sweatshops of China, to echo Marx’s view that capitalism carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory, published for the first time in English last year, is a Kafkaesque satire set in the almost infinite environment of the titular factory, which explores the exploitative and dehumanising effects of capitalism. Now there’s Hilary Leichter’s debut Temporary, an unashamedly absurdist novel about a woman who moves from job to job with the dream of one day securing that Holy Grail of capitalism, a permanent role.
Absurdist? I hear you ask. What could possibly be absurdist about seeking full-time employment? Well, what if I told you that our unnamed narrator fills in for a construction worker, a mailman, a mural artist, and, finally, “that woman who hails a taxi every afternoon at that huge intersection.” And how would you feel if I said that once she’s proven herself, the recruitment agency lands her a short-term gig as the “Chairman of the Board at a very, very major corporation, Major Corp,” where she votes on all manner of important issues that she knows nothing about? If that’s still not silly enough, what if I added that in her next job, she spends several years organising and arranging a woman’s shoe collection:
“You can arrange them by heel height, or by color,” [the woman] explained. “Your choice!” […]
“What about arranging them by frequency of use?” I asked.
“Oh, I never wear these shoes,” she laughed. “That’s a different closet for a different day.”
I never saw that other closet, not once.
If that still seems a tad mundane, then I feel obligated to mention the months she spends on the deck of a pirate ship, searching out for investors on the high seas with the intent of stealing their venture capital.
As I think I’ve made abundantly clear, Temporary is a book that commits wholeheartedly to the surreal environment it has created. It’s a risky endeavour, especially with longer fiction where there’s always the danger that over the course of several chapters the absurd premise, initially subversive, funny, and eye-opening, will wear thin. Leichter does not have this problem. Partly that’s because Temporary is a short book, clocking in at just over 200 pages. Partly it’s because Leichter doesn’t just rely on the ridiculous nature of each set-piece to drive the story – within these mini-worlds, whether swabbing the deck of a pirate ship, or working for an assassin, our narrator faces all manner of obstacles and threats. The main reason why Temporary works so well as an absurdist novel is that the subject matter – this massive shift since the 2008 financial crisis from permanent to part-time and casual work – lends itself to being ridiculed. It is ludicrous that despite all the wealth, which has led to a record number of billionaires, we have the perverse outcome where people are forced to hold multiple temporary jobs – without health care or leave entitlements – simply to survive. As we’ve seen in the past months, when multinationals are forced to downsize because of an unexpected economic downturn, it is the temporary worker who is the first to lose their job. For Leichter’s narrator, who’s dream role is a “job that stays,” the way she copes with this sense of uncertainty is to collect boyfriends like they were trading cards, with each one performing a specific function – the earnest boyfriend, the tallest boyfriend, the culinary boyfriend, the handy boyfriend, and so on. None of this can fill the hollow void that comes with not having a permanent job, that sense of being part of a community that recognises and celebrates the value of your work.
Throughout the novel, there are these lovely mythological interludes, which introduce us to the First Temporary, created by the gods “so they could take a break.” In a moment of profundity, the First Temporary, having surveyed all around her, notes the “fallacy of permanence in a world where everything ends and [yet she] desired that kind of permanence all the same.” There’s something simple and true, and oh so bittersweet, about this epiphany that expresses a need, both at home and at work, to feel like we belong, that we are respected, that we are loved. Temporary is a terrific novel that, horrible pandemic aside, speaks to the current moment, speaks to the uncertainty many of us face, speaks to the drawbacks of an uncaring free-market, and does so with a wonderfully witty sense of the absurd.
This review and more like it in the May 2020 issue of Locus.
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