Plenty of people have worked temp jobs over the course of their lives. Fewer people, however, have been employed as temporary pirates, mannequins, barnacles or murderers. That’s the experience of the narrator of Hilary Leichter’s “Temporary,” a woman who makes her way from assignment to assignment — some of which occur in office spaces, others on the high seas.
Initially, when the narrator takes an assignment in a corporate office, “Temporary” appears to be a very stylized instance of workplace satire. The narrator is in the role of Chairman of the Board of a company called Major Corp. Her duties? “I sign documents I don’t understand, sit in on conference calls, stack memos and stamp the dates, fiduciary and filibuster and finance and finesse and fill the office walls with art selected from a list of hip emerging painters, and finish each assignment before anything can be explained in full.”
Two things can be gleaned from that passage: first, that Leichter has a great sense for prose; and second, that this novel’s tone can rapidly turn absurd. By the time she’s gathering the cremains of the Chairman of the Board and placing them into a necklace, any sense that this might be a realistic work has gone out the window. The narrator’s movement from assignment to assignment takes on the feeling of dream logic, but there’s a sense of morality and ethics below it all — making certain assignments, like piracy, particularly unsettling for the narrator, even as the possibility of genuine human connection looms.
This blend of incisive satire and bizarre imagery would have been enough on its own to make this book memorable. But there are other elements to the novel that give it an even greater resonance: the narrator’s occasional flashbacks to her youth, in which she spent time with her mother, for instance. “When I was very young, I performed chores instead of jobs,” Leichter writes — and the connection between past and present makes the narrator seem somehow eternal. Other passages in the novel evoke mythology and scripture: “The gods created the First Temporary so they could take a break.”
By novel’s end, the story of the narrator has evolved from satirical to something approaching archetypal. At a time when pop culture abounds with incisive takes on people’s relationship to their jobs — from Rob Hart’s dystopian “The Warehouse” to Bong Joon-ho’s acclaimed film “Parasite” — Leichter’s novel finds space for both intimacy and expansiveness. It’s like little else you’ll read, but its emotional resonance is all too familiar.
Tobias Carroll is a writer and critic in New York and managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn.
By: Hilary Leichter.
Publisher: Coffee House Press/Emily Books, 184 pages, $16.95.