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In 1973, Elizabeth Hardwick declared that sex could no longer be the subject of great literature. The novel of seduction — in the vein of “The Scarlet Letter” and “Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” of Dreiser, Zola and Henry James — was dead. “You cannot seduce anyone when innocence is not a value,” she wrote in a precise, imperiously beautiful essay, “Seduction and Betrayal.” Some 25 years later, Vivian Gornick asserted that the novel of love was now in uncertain health. We simply know too much to believe such stories with the old fervor, she argued in “The End of the Novel of Love.” The notion of romance as a vehicle for self-discovery asks us to disregard what we know to be true: This is work we must do for ourselves.
I’ve always been intrigued by, if wary of, these arguments, out of a streak of weird, warrantless optimism, at least where fiction is concerned. I share Arnold Schoenberg’s hope that “there is still much good music that can be written in C major.” But there’s no denying that the novel of love, of sex, has recessed. Friendship is ascendant, or parenthood or elegant alienation (see Rachel Cusk). Even in fiction that takes coupling as its subject, as in the novels of Sally Rooney, the characters seem a bit sheepish, as if caught participating in a nostalgic exercise.
The drama of the romance hasn’t totally withered away, however; it’s merely migrated. You’ll recognize all the familiar throes — exalted expectations and dashed hopes, disillusionment and embarrassing self-delusion — in fiction about work. Specifically, about late capitalism’s carousel of grinding, precarious labor; see the books of Helen DeWitt, Catherine Lacey, Ling Ma, Hiroko Oyamada and Sayaka Murata.
In “Temporary,” a brisk, wildly imaginative first novel by Hilary Leichter, the unnamed protagonist is a temp worker who trudges between 23 jobs. “I have a shorthand kind of career,” she tells us. “Short tasks, short stays, short skirts. My temp agency is an uptown pleasure dome of powder-scented women in sensible shoes. As is customary, I place my employment in their manicured hands. With trusty carpal alchemy they knead my résumé into a series of paychecks that constitute a life.”
The narrator doesn’t yearn for the rescue, revenge or adventure that typically drives a novel. It’s something more elusive she’s after, what she and her fellow temps call “the steadiness” — a permanent job. When she encounters an old friend who has achieved the impossible, she is pierced by envy. “What does it feel like?” she asks, trying not to cry. “The steadiness?” Her friend soothes her with all the banalities detested by the lovelorn: “Sometimes these things happen when you’re not looking for them.”
She waits. She washes skyscraper windows, directs traffic and delivers mail. She fills in for a mannequin in a department store window, having her limbs twisted into pleasing poses.
Her temping positions tip into the surreal. She fills in for the board chairman of a major corporation, and after he dies, carries around his ashes — he insists on continuing to be a man about town. Later, she’s sent to live in a beautiful house and instructed to open and close the doors at specific intervals during the day — to fill in for a ghost. There is the pirate ship on which her duties include handling severance, very literally defined (“Any limb will do,” she’s told). She temps for a murderer, which she accepts with strange equanimity: “Files and documents come and go by way of the shredder, but murder is a task that lasts.”
In these snippets, you can hear an old note, a note I’ve missed in American fiction, and am surprised to have noticed myself missing — for so long it seemed dominant to the point of imperishability. The violent, surreal, often cartoonish scenarios delivered deadpan that draw attention to the freakishness of ordinary life — from writers like Donald Barthelme, Gordon Lish, Ben Marcus. At one point, Leichter’s narrator is enlisted to work as a human barnacle, standing in for those that had gone extinct. It’s not so bad, a co-worker tells her. “No different than filling in and growing roots at a desk, really.”
Leichter’s deeper interest is in mining how transient, insecure work inflects our private life — if it even permits a private life. Can we afford to stop working? Do we remember how? The narrator’s love life is exquisitely compartmentalized. Eighteen boyfriends minister to her needs, each fulfilling a particular role on an allotted night. (“It’s the way I can multitask,” she explains.) There is the handy boyfriend, the life coach boyfriend, the earnest boyfriend (“he who plucks the spiders from my rug and tucks them onto window ledges”), the caffeinated boyfriend she dates “for the suspense.”
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Later, she embarks on something approaching motherhood, when hired by a young boy whose own mother has gone missing. She’s meant to cook, clean and occasionally yell for no reason, then stare sadly out the window. “Like this?” she asks the boy. “More desperate,” he corrects her. “Pick a point of focus outside and commit.” The question that goes unmentioned — that, perhaps, never needs mentioning — is where did his real mother go? Likely to a temp job of her own, sitting in for some other barnacle.
This novel could have easily sagged into dogma, but Leichter keeps the narrative crisp, swift and sardonic. “Temporary” reads like a comic and mournful “Alice in Wonderland” set in the gig economy, an eerily precise portrait of ourselves in a cracked mirror. As the Red Queen told Alice, seizing her wrist and goading her on for a race: “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
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