Identity, absurdity and loneliness in ‘Temporary’

Feb. 8, 2021, 8:46 p.m.

As college students, we are pressured to find out what we are supposed to do with our lives. Will we find ourselves settling in jobs that feel true to ourselves, or will we find ourselves chronically dissatisfied, hopping from job to job like replaceable automatons? Hilary Leichter’s debut novel “Temporary” is an extreme manifestation of the fear of this purposelessness. Using a creative yet familiar fantasy world, Leichter profoundly illuminates the complications of finding purpose, which, in this world, is inseparable from profession.

The protagonist is an unnamed narrator who bounces from job to job in search of “the steadiness,” a state of permanence that she describes with symptoms such as an “elevated pulse” and “prickly sweat.” In this world, she is referred to as a “temp,” a worker without a stable profession — and, it seems, stable relationships or identities. She hopes each of her seemingly senseless jobs — filling in for a ghost and a mannequin, for example — is permanent. As she moves through the almost dream-like and absurdist world of the novel searching for where she belongs, the reader is forced to contemplate what it means to find permanence and value in a world where everything is bound to disappear.

Though it deals with topics such as death, loneliness and human evil, “Temporary” doesn’t take itself too seriously. Leichter creates a world that is silly, imaginative and humorous. The narrator, for example, gets a job acting like a human barnacle. “We’re filling in for a species on the brink of extinction!” a coworker happily tells her. This zany world is made even richer through its creation myth. According to the myth, the first temporary was created by the gods “so they could take a break.” She, like all the temporaries that would follow, performed the tasks of others, in search of a proper place for herself in the world. In her spare time, she created other temporaries that would soon become things like the moon and the horizon. Yet although this world often borders on fantastical and absurd, it still somehow manages to feel strangely familiar. At the barnacle job, a fellow barnacle notes that the job is “no different than filling in and growing roots at a desk.” The common feeling of purposelessness and senselessness you may feel working at a job that you aren’t passionate about is still resonant throughout these inventive and inane professions.

The narrator’s lack of a permanent, meaningful profession is carried into her personal life as well. She goes through not only job after job, but also boyfriend after boyfriend, none of whom are ever referred to by their given names; rather, they go by labels like “handy boyfriend,” “tall boyfriend” or “flaneur boyfriend.” At each job, the narrator attempts to form relationships with coworkers that are often so endearing that the reader hopes they work out — but they never do. In possibly the most heartbreaking chapter in the book, the narrator, who has subbed for a missing mother for several years, is kicked out by the substitute son that she basically raised. In this world, even the most intimate relationships are inseparable from one’s profession. The search for a stable profession is not only a search for an occupation, but a search for an identity and a defined relationship with the world and others. Like the narrator, many find themselves lonely, caught in a world where forming relationships is often contingent on circumstance, employment and utility.

The book’s haunting central refrain is that there is “nothing more personal than a job.” As the narrator is booted from job after job, she is continuously told by her employees and coworkers that jobs are unimportant and impersonal. It is evident, however, that these remarks aren’t true — each job inevitably comprises a part of her identity and self-worth. Even situations that appear to be impersonal prove to be more complicated. Though she spends the book acting as if she does not care about her boyfriends, not even addressing them by their names, she eventually addresses each one by his real name and confesses her love. When the narrator flies up in a blimp to blindly press seemingly useless buttons, she soon discovers that she is not just simply pressing buttons, but also dropping bombs. This dissonance between the supposed impersonality of work and the dire consequences it can have on others highlights the contradictions inherent in a capitalist society, where jobs are so indifferent and mechanical yet so fundamentally intertwined with one’s personal identity.

While reading “Temporary,” I initially felt exhausted by the insignificance the narrator seemed to hold to each character and setting, which draped the novel with a sense of hopelessness and loneliness. Reading further, however, I realized that as much as “Temporary” is a commentary on our disposability in the occupational and relational world, it is also a contemplation of both the irreplaceability and disposability of a human being. When the narrator acts as a temp for a pirate, she befriends a fellow crewmate named Pearl, who was also a temp. When the real Pearl shows up again, the temporary Pearl manages to convince the crew that she was the original Pearl. “Who’s to say the prisoner Pearl is still even Pearl after all her time away? Who’s to say I’ll still be myself a year from now?” the narrator asks. Yet when she tries to replace a pirate named Darla, she soon realizes that she will never be able to completely do so: “How long does it take to accurately replace a person, I wonder? Certainly longer than a life. An eye patch doesn’t replace the eye, it just provides temporary coverage.”

A last central question of “Temporary” is one to do with the ephemerality of the world. All the characters in this book, not just the temporaries, are in search of something that lasts — be it professions, relationships or identities. Yet nothing is permanent but the certainty of departure. This conclusion, however, doesn’t stop the narrator nor other characters from searching for what lasts anyway. The first temporary wisely observes “the fallacy of permanence in a world where everything ends and desires that kind of permanence all the same.” In a world where nothing lasts, are we bound for unhappiness and dissatisfaction? “Temporary” reminds us that perhaps a form of steadiness is not the permanence of a job, relationship or possession, but the unrelenting search for it.

Contact Cindy Xin at cindywxx ‘at’

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