Money  /  Book Review

The Once and Future Temp

What can the history of the temp-work industry teach us about the precarity of modern working life?

In the 1980s, Arlene Kaplan Daniels coined the term “invisible work” to describe unpaid labor, traditionally undertaken by women, in the household.1 Over time, feminist scholars—from anthropologists to economists—adopted and broadened the term to refer to any work that is physically hidden, culturally overlooked, socially marginalized, economically devalued, or legally unprotected.2 This is to say, invisibility is a rather amorphous characteristic that results when the work, worker, or workplace is obscured, often leading to a combination of economic, cultural, and social devaluation.

In Hilary Leichter’s first novel, Temporary, this invisible work makes the world turn. Following the incredibly odd temp positions of a young woman navigating the workplace, the reader quickly realizes that Temporary is a surreal and speculative novel set outside this universe. In each chapter, the unnamed narrator fills in for a different person or thing, taking on wacky placements as an assassin, a pirate, and a sea barnacle.

In Leichter’s novel, the protagonist is born a temporary, living in the space “between who she was and whom she was meant to replace.” While Leichter’s temporaries were originally created “to fill any gaps the gods had forgotten,” over time they have become a class of people with no choice but to embrace their transient occupational status and its affective demands. In Leichter’s world, the “temp” has grown from a temporary occupation into a permanent fixture of the universe. In one sense, then, Leichter forces readers to ask what it means for temps to be anything but provisional.

Leichter dreams up a colorful and kooky world of work in Temporary, which asks the question, What can fiction, specifically the surreal and bemusing kind, teach us about modern working life? With a matter-of-fact tone and tongue-in-cheek language, Leichter crafts a world in which work-life balance is as elusive as celebrity status. While Temporary’s story world is purposefully impressionistic, its portrayal of temporary work draws very real connections between the history of the “temp” industry in the US and newer forms of contingent labor that demand workers sacrifice not just their time—and now, potentially, their health—but also crucial facets of their identities.

For Leichter’s mythical temps, their purpose is not merely to stand in for other workers (the assassin, the pirate) but also to embody them, to become them. The central journey occurs in this in-between of internal and external selves, for it is through these portraits of exaggerated embodiment that Leichter captures the gendered and affective aspects of work. Leichter places these traditionally invisible and feminized practices in the foreground, constructing a campy story of work and identity that reveals just how closely the two are connected and how this proximity can invite exploitation.