Temporary, by Hilary Leichter: Amusing Musings about Work and Life

Coffee House Press publishes, “literary fiction, essay, poetry, and other work that doesn’t fit neatly into genre categories,” as per the blurb in the back of my latest read, Temporary, by Hilary Leichter.  How fitting!  The book, which kept me turning pages until my vision started to blur, had me simultaneously amused, depressed, and enlightened.  Not an easy feat!  

Temporary reads like a twisted Odyssey in which our nameless heroine (the “Temporary”) traverses land, sea, and sky in search of the elusive PERMANENCE.  Snippets of mythology outlining the origins and adventures of the first of her kind intersect chapters of her twisted journey.

Our tragically flawed protagonist is not, however, a Greek or Roman demigod battling a cyclops or minotaur (There is a bizarre chapter involving a witch who becomes a dragon though.).  She is…

a temp.

She moves with determination from temporary job to temporary job at first intentionally, with the guidance of her blue-sparkle-nail-polish temp agent Farren, and then seemingly at the will of the winds (and tides).  All the while she yearns for what all temporaries yearn for: an end to “filling in” and taking on the identities of others while settling into “permanence” which we gather means more than just a full-time job, but rather an all encompassing sense of stability.  

It is also a quest to break the chain of “temporariness” of the women who came before her, her mother and grandmother, who had impressed upon our girl that there is “nothing more personal than doing your job.”  So shouldn’t each job then be hers and hers alone and not someone else’s?

Her first jobs, although vaguely described, make reference to tasks in the normal “jobby” vernacular like filing, accounting, business meetings, reporting, hiring, firing, and so on.  She fills in for “The Chairman” of “Major Corp,” assuming all of his “officey” duties.  

The job assignments become increasingly weird and surreal and the book begins to take on a Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory sort of feel.  Like experiencing the awesome yet creepy discoveries in every part of Wonka’s factory, my mental eyes widened and my jaw dropped as our Temporary’s assignments shifted from shoe organizer, to pirate, to mannequin, to ghost, to murderer, to barnacle, to eventually mom.  Each assignment’s tasks dutifully detailed in her leather planner, and ending abruptly upon a misstep or the return of the “original.”

During each assignment, the Temporary takes on aspects of the person she is replacing.  A fellow former barnacle stationed with her on another assignment aboard a zeppelin (you read that correctly…) notes that even after leaving their temporary job of sticking to rocks at sea, “that saltwater kick is still in your veins.  It doesn’t go away.”  Clearly in temping as in life, we retain parts of all we experience.

Now this is the magic of this quirky little book.  The Temporay’s temporary experiences in each position reveal universal (and often unsettling) truths about the modern workplace such as monotony, competition, and purposelessness, “…I can’t bear the task that makes and unmakes.  Because in the end, what does that make of me?”

Leichter simultaneously explores the ways our jobs define us, and how we allow ourselves to be defined by our jobs.  Additionally, she taps into that part of human nature that craves stability and loathes change.  Even the Temporary’s relationships are noncommittal, an aspect of the book that I found hilarious (and on some levels, relatable, ugh…).  She is simultaneously involved with a tallest boyfriend, a culinary boyfriend, a favorite boyfriend, an accounting boyfriend, and others who eventually bond with each other and set up camp in her apartment.  (I laughed out loud at this.)

The only permanent exception is the Chairman of the Board, whose ashes reside in a necklace the Temporary wears around her neck.  Another “job assignment” is for her to wear this at all times so the Chairman may remain “a man about the town” after death, following her on her adventures.  His spirit serves as an invisible friend, confidante, and advisor.  

In a plot twist, we learn that their lives are more deeply intertwined, dating back to a time before she was born.  This exposes a different sort of permanence that exists through familial ties even after death.

To conclude, the book amused the heck out of me.  I especially enjoyed the pirate ship assignment and the looting and kidnapping of a fellow company’s team-building glass bottom boat cruise (a company acquisition, or buy out).  This read also left me deeply unsettled as it led to a number of uncomfortable conclusions about work and identity:  The fabled “permanence” is only a facade, we are highly replaceable, and in some ways, always replacing a version that came before.  

I suppose Leichter’s fable/comedy/horror/drama reinforces the importance of truly living in the moment and simply enjoying the journey of life wherever it takes us, doing our best to fulfill our duties, ticking off our to-do lists, and feeling our present feelings, as this is all truly… temporary.

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