"Temporary" Takes On the Gig Economy and the Way We Live Now
In Hilary Leichter's debut novel, a woman attempts the near-impossible: to find fulfillment through work.
"I wanted to write a book about work where the work is meaningless and means everything," Hilary Leichter tells me over the phone on a recent Thursday morning. We are talking about Temporary, her first novel about a woman whose whole life consists of working as a temp in a world where seemingly anything is in need for substitute work—from a barnacle, to a pirate, to the CEO of a business—which has just been released. "I think there are a lot of incredible books about work where the work means something," she continues, "and this character doesn't have ambitions to climb the ladder to a specific role. She just wants to be okay."
For anyone that's come into adulthood in the last fifteen years or so, the story will ring awfully familiar. You graduate college with an insane amount of debt, you are trying to follow your dream into a career you love because if you "do what you love you'll never work a day in your life." But in reality you work a variety of jobs vaguely related to what you went to school with, to what you want to do. You read articles about why millennials aren't buying houses anymore and you laugh and laugh and laugh. Now the things you care about are your side hustle, all you do is work work work work work work work. When are you supposed to start a family—whatever that may look like for you, go on vacation, buy real furniture that isn't from Ikea?
Temporary first existed as a short story written years ago, which Leichter revisited when she found herself "stuck" on a new book she was writing. "I went back to the story and realized that it was mirroring a lot of the ways that I was feeling in my life at the moment, and I said to myself, This is the thing I should be working on. Leichter wrote the first draft of the book in a month while watching the Republican National Convention in 2016. "I didn't have a fever but I wrote it like I had a fever," she remembers. But who didn't feel like they had a fever while watching the Republican National Convention? "I didn't really stop to interrogate anything, I just kind of let it sweep me towards something. As I started going [through] the draft, I realized what I was talking about."
What she's talking about: the gig economy, late (but could be much later) capitalism, climate change, motherhood, self-fulfillment. But this is not a book about "ideas," it's not a very special episode of a book, it is a book that through its surreal plot, and a main character devoid of any sort of basic attributes, perfectly captures our unhinged current times. "It's not fun telling an editor that oh, my character has no attributes, so she kind of becomes [herself] through the process of becoming other people," Leichter explains. "Each job for her is almost an exercise in solving the puzzle of who she is, and I think it's not that she isn't anybody, it's that she's someone who's not allowed to be herself because she always has to be someone else."
She adds, "If that's not a metaphor for the way that we have to be in the workplace, then I don't know what is."
It's also not not a metaphor for the way that other modern vice, social media, has turned self-presentation into an art, or at least an art in personal brand. This is not just about how instead of wanting to be cowboys or astronauts, kids want to be influencers or Blonde Salads, but how there are micro-influencers in every industry. Whether you are a chef, a writer, or a scientist, the allure of a large social-media following is too large to ignore. Work is work, but these days, we're never not working. "There is nothing more personal than doing your job," our narrator says early on in the novel.
"That statement started as a pun because I spent a lot of years working as a personal assistant, like, nothing's more personal than your job if you're a personal assistant. But then it evolved to mean something else over the course of the book."
Leichter adds, "My husband will sometimes say to people, So, what are you working on right now?, and I love that, I think oftentimes when he says that people are really confused. They're like, What do you mean, what am I working on?" She adds, "I just love that because it implies that we're all working on something, not working for someone."
Working on something and not working for someone. The dream.