In her first novel, Temporary (208 pages; Coffee House Press), Hilary Leichter creates a world that is all too familiar to readers, only askew. In this surreal tale of a nameless temp worker trying to find “a job that will stay,” Leichter conveys the absurdity of the job market, and the sentiments of the temporary, outward-looking workers who circle its drain.
I consider my deepest wish. There are days I think I’ve achieved it, and then it’s gone, like a sneeze that gets swallowed. I’ve heard that at the first sign of permanence, the heart rate can increase, and blood can rise in the cheeks. I’ve read the brochures, the pamphlets…
“When you know, you just know,” the lucky temps say. “You can’t rush these things.“
Some temps never go steady, and they die before digging into the footholds of life.
Having always moved from one gig to the next—directing traffic, looking after an old lady’s expansive collection of shoes, hailing taxis, the list goes on and on—our narrator is eager for a chance to prove herself worthy of permanent hiring, what temps call “the steadiness.”And it seems she may have a shot at it when her temp agency offers her the unusual (but promising, she’s told) opportunity to join a crew of pirates, who can never decide on a logo for their flag. She’ll be filling-in for a woman named Darla. Which means, of course, she will do her very best to be, exactly, completely, undeniably Darla. Eyepatch and all.
Always get the last word.
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She sets out to sea in a pair of lavish stolen shoes that don’t fit, leaving behind her her many boyfriends (one for every day of the week) and a very angry former employer (the lady with the many shoes, now with one pair missing). She carries with her the ashes of The Chairman of the Board of Major Corps in a necklace around her neck. The CEO, another former employer, had asked her to take him with her wherever she went because he was “a man about town,” (Just another one of her assignments.) Sometimes the necklace burns, and he appears to give her advice.
Leichter displays a wonderful command of language. Every image jumps out with startling clarity. Even the mundane pops on the page, brought sharply, oddly, into focus by the eager eyes of our narrator. And the writing proves just as innovative with sound—adding a twinge to everything written that makes the strangeness of it all that much more apparent and intriguing. Leichter has taken the world of jobs and hurdles we know too well, and put it on the page for us in a way that makes it new. It is a strange, hilarious, and fantastical book about work, about our dreams and all the related burdens that burrow into our hearts.
Between the pirate life of deck-swabbing and dungeon duty, peddling pamphlets for a witch, and serving as right-hand man for an assassin, our narrator wears her fair share of masks. She goes by names that aren’t her own, and constantly alters her personality to suit each role. Paired with her many boyfriends and fickle friendships, her life is chockfull of things not built to last. In her attempts to find “the steadiness,” her mother’s mantra rings in her ear: “there is nothing more personal than doing your job.” But what can that mean for someone whose work—that thing we might need to tell us who we are—is ever-changing?
Leichter’s novel is about origins and endings, and that long stretch of temporary “middle” that we live in. It’s about mortals and the trouble of finding things that stay, things we can hold on to. To that end, Temporary also feels like a love letter to the planet we inhabit, that lets us be here (whatever that means), even if only for a little while.