There is nothing more personal than doing your job.
So goes the maxim of the young, unnamed woman at the center of Hilary Leichter’s weird, dreamy debut, “Temporary.” In the gossamer territory Leichter has conjured, the insistence that gainful employment is superior to all else is exactly what seems to deprive the young woman of “the steadiness,” or that beguiling quality of assimilating into what one is meant to do forever: to work for a bank, to slice heirloom tomatoes and collect heirloom treasures, to wear cashmere and never have to clean your own house anymore, ever.
“Temporary’s” narrator works for a temp agency, where she is assigned to a series of jobs that unspool and accrete with delightful absurdity. She shines shoes at Grand Central Station. She hails taxis. She cleans the windows of skyscrapers and fills in for mannequins at a department store. She is a barnacle (yes, in the ocean) and a pirate (yes, on a ship where planks are walked) and a chairman of the board (yes, of a major corporation). Shoes must be literally filled and pins are literally put into briefing books. When the chairman dies, she must carry his ashes in a locket around her neck so he can continue to be literally a man about town.
Leichter’s narrator occupies a substratum of a fantastical world where temps, who have their own creation myth (the first temp was created so the gods could rest), regularly fill in for all sorts of jobs while engaging in their own existential struggle — namely how to achieve permanence. A batty, playful satire, “Temporary” twists the jargon and anxieties of a millennial gig economy into a dreamscape of spires and scaffolding through which we swing as our narrator seeks out her steadiness.
Despite the carousel of desks and paperwork, posts and tasks, there is tenuous steadiness in the narrator’s life already — the string of odd jobs she undertakes with zeal, but also the paper-doll chain of a dozen and a half nameless boyfriends she’s been seeing for an undefined period of time. There’s the earnest boyfriend who extracts spiders from her rug, the mall-rat boyfriend whom she visits at the mall, the frugal boyfriend who makes her microwave mug brownies and the flaneur boyfriend who goes to Paris every year. They’re all aware of one another. They even hang out together when she’s away filling in for Darla, the pirate who has gone to visit her parents in Florida, or learning murder from Carl, a hit man who kisses her softly and doesn’t desire to become a boyfriend at all.
The woman is meant to complete each assignment with administrative efficiency, yet she habitually subverts the work, sometimes out of moral compunction: when she witnesses an employer steal a pair of shoes, she steals a pair of her employer’s shoes in turn; on the pirate ship, she only pretends to kill an interloper to appease her mates; when hired by a 7-year-old boy to fill in for his mother, the narrator is unable to stop herself from caring for her charge. Soon enough she is fired and finds herself banished to the hinterlands of disgraced temps. In the meantime, her boyfriends have hired a new collective girlfriend to replace her. The woman’s fall from grace could present as an instructive fable about the hamster-wheel physics of late capitalism and the temptation to profit from its decadence despite diminishing returns. But “Temporary” resists lessons in favor of thoughtful levity. Sometimes the levity is quite literal.
Time and space do not apply in Leichter’s world, and her fabulist ability to transport her narrator from murder shack to bomb-dropping blimp situates her among writers whose work some might label magic realism, slipstream or even surrealist — writers like Samantha Hunt, Karen Russell, Samanta Schweblin, Kelly Link and Helen Oyeyemi (the last two provided blurbs for “Temporary”). But it would be reductive to pin Leichter or any one of these writers to a particular genre; the delight of reading their work is inextricable from the ecstatic cartwheel sensation of wondering, what is this? “Temporary” telegraphs this feeling exactly — the childlike knot of enchantment and pleasant disorientation of a spell properly cast.
Leichter’s work also feels as if it mimics the strangeness of internet teleportation — the zooming, swooping quality of entering and exiting worlds with little more than a click — without replicating its didacticism or alienating effect. But “Temporary” doesn’t skirt darkness altogether. “The universe doesn’t subtract, it just replaces,” muses one of the narrator’s acquaintances one day. “Matter isn’t created or destroyed, it’s just replaced, it just changes, it’s just misplaced. And if nothing is ever really lost, how can we ever mourn?”
How do we mourn our past selves when they’ve been replaced with a newer, possibly steadier self? Is that old self still under there, deep in the new self’s pockets, or suspended in some unsettling temp-agency limbo, left to search for the steadiness that the new self has secured?
In the trippy, shape-shifting architecture of “Temporary,” we come to discover that the landscape around us is constructed on shaky foundations, but also that there’s comfort in uncanny in-betweenness. It’s sweet and a little deflating to realize that everything is makeshift, that all positions and tasks are ephemeral, and that we can question and subvert them if we so desire.
Pariseau is a writer and editor in New Orleans.
Coffee House Press: 208 pages, $16.95