Like the unnamed young woman of Hilary Leichter’s Temporary, I’ve done my best each day at a temporary job that only promised “an experience.” This past summer, I found myself compiling thorough media contact lists for countless independent presses, literary journals, and MFA programs as part of my unpaid internship for one of the biggest literary journals in the country. I spent hours searching the journal’s website for the names of every author with a forthcoming book from any press, checking the social media of hundreds of accounts with ties to the new issue’s contributors, and taking dozens of promotional photos—without guidelines—that would promptly be rejected by the marketing associate.
The Temporary and I are kindred souls. We have both “learned to do everything in forty minutes,” working efficiently and with precision on the clock. She takes on position after position, all short-lived and eclectic, on the search for permanence. She wishes to feel like what she does actually matters, to find happiness in a capitalist world that is slightly askew—not exactly dystopian, but operating in ways ours cannot.
The Temporary is on a quest for “the steadiness,” for connection and value. Analogous to a full-time job, the steadiness transcends job security—it is much more than that. “Some temporaries swear it’s that shiver, that elevated pulse, that prickly sweat, the biology of how you know it’s happening to you,” Leichter writes. The steadiness is knowing that a particular job is calling you, that this is what you’re meant to do; it cannot be applied for or rushed.
Written in flash-fiction segments ranging from half a page to ten pages, the book is split into sections that follow the main character’s change of placements: City Work, Water Work, Blood Work, and more. She moves from filling in for the Chairman of the Board at Major Corp to being a rich woman’s personal shoe shiner, all while returning home to one of her eighteen simultaneous boyfriends. They’re all “company men,” having already achieved permanence, the thing she desperately longs for. Having multiple partners is characteristic of temps in the book; the Temporary’s mother had several boyfriends, each only ever referred to by their chief descriptor—the “academic boyfriend,” the “beatnik boyfriend,” the “pilot boyfriend,” etc. To add to the disorienting feeling of the novel, the Temporary’s boyfriends eventually discover that she’s dating other people—but are thrilled by it, bonding and hanging out at her apartment while she is away.
In having already achieved the steadiness, the Temporary’s plethora of boyfriends allows her to vicariously feel security. She’s constantly striving for what comes so easily to the men in her life, gesturing at the stark imbalance between men and women in the workplace and the difficulties that women face. (Male temps exist in this world, but the novel focuses on temps who are women.) While each boyfriend serves a purpose in the Temporary’s life, and there’s a sense in which she even appears to be using them, she also cares about them, and their independence affects her. “We aren’t anything long-term, they know,” she says. But she feels “as hollow as a cave” when the boyfriends reassure her that they’ll “take good care of each other” while she’s gone. She depends on them and wants them to need her, and when they prove that company men don’t need temporaries, she feels cast aside. A permanent job doesn’t need her, and neither do her boyfriends.
The jobs the Temporary fills in for are fanciful: she gets enlisted as an ocean barnacle, pushes buttons on a bomb-dropping blimp, and scrubs the blood-stained clothes of a murderer. One day, an urn arrives at her door, and the agency tells her it’s the real Chairman’s ashes; she’s meant to carry him around with her so he can continue to be “a man about town.” So she does—a job on top of her other jobs, a perpetual placement accompanied by a humorous and matter-of-fact ghost.
“My mother arranged for me my very first job, just as her mother did for her,” Leichter writes. “She didn’t have to explain. I already knew it in my bones, in my knees, in the way you understand things about yourself even before you hear them spoken aloud.” In this world, temping is just something one does naturally, a predetermined fate passed down the family tree. As temps, they measure everything in hours, from employment to gestation. For undefined reasons, going home is not an option—the agency “allots [their] existence.”
The Temporary starts working early in life, early enough that her head hits “just above the side of [her] mother’s full blue skirt.” She’s dropped off at an empty suburban house with a leather planner and instructed to fill her days “until none are left.” She is charged with the task of opening and closing doors on a precise schedule until otherwise notified, almost as if she’s preserving their function; if she is slightly late or misses one, ambiguous punishment threatens to arrive. Although never directly stated, the first job seems to function as a training program, instilling the precise attention to detail and intense time management expected of temps. Every temporary has a leather-bound planner that they take to each placement and a Farren, a clone-like worker at the temp agency, to call when each job is completed, when they are no longer needed. The Temporary’s particular Farren has aquamarine nails, and maybe other Farrens have crimson or indigo nails or none at all, but this is left to the imagination.
For the Temporary, “there is nothing more personal than doing your job,” regardless of who you’re filling in for or the task at hand. In the world of Leichter’s novel, you’re expected not only to complete the duties of the position you’re taking on, but to seamlessly replace the person to whom the job truly belongs. Their birthday becomes yours, and when coworkers refer to you with their name, you’re expected to respond as if you were born with it.
“The surest path to permanence is to do my placements, and to do them well,” Leichter writes. Temporary captures the robotic feeling of monotonous work, corporate or not, regardless of whether the position can provide enough to sustain a life. Past placements haunt the Temporary, making her wonder if any of them was “the one,” the key to the steadiness. The steadiness is something you earn, but the metaphorical checklist of things you must do to achieve it isn’t recorded or set in stone. Permanence means the freedom to leave and return and be missed, to not be constantly chasing an ideal. Everyone around the Temporary says that when you achieve permanence you’ll know, that there’s a feeling—but what if you don’t know?
When she doesn’t find meaning after each position, she continues to temp because there is no other acceptable course of action. “She unfolded the family tree of the temporary lives recorded before ours,” Leichter writes. “My aunt with her stack of resumes. My grandmother with her dainty paper coffee cup. My great-grandmother behind a desk, and on the desk, a nameplate with someone else’s name.”
But maybe, Temporary suggests, we don’t need the steadiness to make us whole, but rather human connection. We witness this connection between the Temporary and others like her, fellow workers looking for something more. She walks laps on the dock of a ship with “replacement Pearl,” develops a silent routine with the assassin Carl—a co-worker of sorts—and jumps rope in her driveway with her childhood friend Anna. While her boyfriends’ overwhelming loyalty becomes insufferable, each of them serves a purpose, from handiness to height, and the Temporary misses their company. While she may not have permanence, at least she won’t “go gray” at a desk like her boyfriends; company jobs don’t hold space for emotional connection. Since the Temporary isn’t a permanent cog in the machine, she can chase these sparks of feeling.
“It feels good to hold hands, even if the holding isn’t the purpose, just a symptom of a separate action,” she says, indicating that although she isn’t complete without the steadiness, she can feel things deeply without it, though she doesn’t elaborate on or work through these emotions. At the end of one of their walks, replacement Pearl says, “Maybe you can be my best friend,” and the Temporary “[fills] up like something empty, something fierce and starving.”
Leichter uses hyperbole and exaggeration throughout the novel, from the consistent eagerness of the Temporary’s multiple boyfriends to the dreamlike positions she holds. When the Temporary leaves for a job on a boat, she comments, “The boyfriends come to the dock to say good-bye, and I can see them running from separate points toward the water, waving in the distance, little specks with arms in the air, my men.” While temping as a barnacle, she explains, “People earning a living perched on the dead coral, adapting and developing new, aquatic characteristics… Perhaps my tongue has already stuck to the sides of my mouth, hardening into a single layer of flesh, urging my body into the creature I’m meant to be.” The absurdity of her bizarre jobs echoes the struggle of being a temp in our corporate world, a place where experience is never enough to secure permanence, where the ideal of a perfect job applicant cannot be realistically met.
Temporary is for anyone who has collected thousands of data points for social media analytics without being invited to the debrief meeting and doesn’t make enough money to pay half the rent on their city apartment. In the final section of the book, readers come to see the inescapability of capitalism, and that perhaps the key to steadiness is with us all along, revealing itself when we aren’t looking. Experience is everything in our capitalist reality, but when does the resume-building pay off? When are your skills deemed advanced enough to warrant the steadiness? Perhaps they never are, Temporary suggests. Instead, perhaps you have to stop waiting for what will never arrive and create your own permanence.