Our Lives Under Capitalism Are Tragically, Maddeningly, Permanently Impermanent

Our work lives are so fissured, our ability to survive requiring such constant and Herculean efforts, that even fantastical narratives portraying the hunt for a steady job as swirling, maddening, operatically dramatic, degrading, bizarre, and never-ending feel just as real as life itself.

For decades, we have been fed the idea that work is from where we’ll derive satisfaction and meaning. (Eutah Mizushima / Unsplash)

I work as a freelance writer. After losing my full-time job in April after the coronavirus pandemic exploded and spending several months applying to and not getting all kinds of “regular” jobs, I got a couple of leads for “anchor gigs” — steady, reliable sources of freelance income that can pay the bills, leaving me with some time to also write other, usually more enjoyable, things.

There are no guarantees to any aspects of my life as a freelancer. Some weeks, I have a steady stream of commissions or ideas for pitches for stories. Other weeks, my inbox is quiet: a relief in some ways, completely dreadful in others. My anchor gigs do just what their moniker implies: hold my life down. They relieve my worry that I won’t be able to pay rent. Still, there is no guarantee that this month won’t be my last at any given one of them. I have to court them, prove my worthiness, convince them to stay.

Millions of workers are like me, not to mention the huge number of at-will employees who have a bit more job security than me, but not much. Freelance work is particularly precarious, but virtually all jobs are now. We bounce around, looking for a job that fits, a job that pays, or, ideally, “a job that stays.”

That’s how the protagonist of Hilary Leichter’s debut novel, Temporary, puts it. Immediately, I found her desire relatable.

Her zeal for her job hunt is frightening — first because it seems misplaced, and then because it mirrors how the contemporary pursuit of a livelihood has practically become a way of life, forcing us to continuously do things like “be active on LinkedIn” and “network.” Our narrator approaches her quest with the kind of manic, frenetic energy we might typically save for, or find sparked by, a new lover. This reversal of work and life — specifically, love life — is established early in the novel: “When you know, you just know,” the “lucky” temps tell her of finding her dream job.

This is perhaps how characters in a romance novel would describe true love, but Temporary forces us to pose the question: aren’t we past that kind of sentimentality? For decades, we have been fed the idea that work is from where we’ll derive satisfaction and meaning; that if you “love what you do, you won’t work a single day in your life.”

We know, of course, that that’s not true — we are stressed, stretched thin, left with little to no time after work or on weekends to live our lives in whatever way we find pleasing, and our constant state of precarity is driving us mad.

Temporary takes that edict, to love your job, to its logical conclusion: letting the job become the sole and defining factor of a life.

In Constant, Unending Pursuit

In fact, the novel’s narrator isn’t even defined by a name. She welcomes us quickly into her world, her “shorthand kind of career” as a temp. If she were to have a name, it would make no difference. She lives a life defined not by personal things like names, but by the constant pursuit of work: the next gig, the next assignment, the next placement.

In an early scene, after she is made to walk the plank when a temporary stint on a pirate ship ends (the book takes several fantastical turns), and she nearly drowns, someone tells her to “swim, swim like it’s your job!” Not like your life depends on it, like it’s your job. Her constant search for steady employment is facilitated by a temp agency, where a woman named Farren finds “great placements” for our narrator — our temporary — as she tumbles from job to job, always hoping to find a path to that longed-for final stage: permanence.

It’s not a love that stays that she wants, but a job. It’s not that she’s given up entirely on the prospect — she has boyfriends, after all — but her personal, emotional affairs won’t ever be what defines her life.

Her unending pursuit of that job is breathless. She will do anything. And she does.

Her first assignment, subbing in for the Chairman of the Board at a company called Major Corp, ends with her funneling the ashes of the recently deceased Chairman into a necklace and winding it around her neck so that she can fulfill a new assignment: to carry him around with her forever, so that he can forever be “a man about town.”

This odd task is a hint of much odder, more fantastical things to come. Soon we find our temporary on the deck of a pirate ship, subbing in for someone named Darla doing menial tasks around the ship and enduring some mild sexual harassment from the “first mate of human resources.” A pirate’s life turns out not to be so different from the working life ashore.

As our temporary’s life plunges further and further into a pit of permanent impermanence, as it becomes clearer that she will never find what she’s looking for, we ourselves plunge deeper into surreality, into worlds that barely make sense, even to the people in them, though they have all succumbed to their illogical logic. Reading her story, I wondered: have I done this, too? Are the perpetually open spreadsheets of invoices, and “hours-tracking,” and potential gigs my very own private Farren?

(Priscilla Du Preez / Unsplash)

Before I go too far down that line of questioning, I remind myself that I’m lucky. I get to do something I love for money about half of the time. Still, a large part of my life is spent devising not only ways to manage my own ability to make money, my own precarity, but also methods to mitigate its worst effects on my psyche. Not going crazy is itself a full-time job.

Leichter captures that precarious mental state through a slippery-slope fall away from reality. Just a few short chapters into the novel, we find our temporary at the employ of first a witch, then a hitman. When she bungles this last assignment — her inability to commit to murder someone indirectly ends up getting her employer framed and thrown in jail — she’s demoted to a second-tier status: a fugitive temporary.

A new agency, for fugitives, places her in a job pushing buttons, dropping bombs in places unknown. She asks one of her coworkers why, and he tells her that because they are fugitives, because there is no trace of them anywhere, there is also no trace of the bombs, no one to hold accountable for the deaths.

It’s bleak. But even bleaker is the fact that it doesn’t even register for her; it’s a job, and thank God she has one at all. Perhaps bleakest is that although Leichter has already dragged us into this fantastical realm, anonymously pushing buttons to drop bombs on similarly nameless people, is no fantasy at all. Our temporary becomes a cog in the US war machine, by accident, because she needs a job. Sound familiar?

The novel’s slippage from reality reinforces the brutal realities of life under capitalism — even in fantasy, they are inescapable. Coupling this slippage with that swapping of caring about life for caring about work established early on, Leichter manages to capture the deeply alienated emotional landscape of life under capitalism. No one has names, except for the people our temporary meets through work or the search for it. The few named people — Farren the agent, Carl the hitman, Pearl the pirate — are the only ones who get to exist fully.

Our narrator is drawn to this fullness: she seeks friendship with Farren and Pearl, and at one point, she wonders whether she’s in love with Carl. But ultimately, their lives are too far from her own. Her search for employment controls her life to such a degree that she is unable to relate or bond.

We don’t really know if Farren, Carl, Pearl, and others struggle in the same way to form personal bonds. It doesn’t matter, though, because from where our temporary is looking, their lives are fulfilled in a way hers isn’t. Isn’t that the heart of our experience of life now? So many of us feel so deeply alienated that we are incapable of realizing that everyone else is in the same, lonely boat as we are.

“That’s Not What We Do”

Our temporary’s attempt at a love life resembles the quick-swipe nature of app dating: forging weak bonds over superficial similarities, projecting an image to be consumed quickly, using people we date to fill a void instead of earnestly making room for them in our lives.

Her boyfriends — of which she has many, in rotation — are nameless, too, identified only by their most surface-level characteristics. There’s her tallest boyfriend, her earnest boyfriend, her pacifist boyfriend, her real estate boyfriend, her favorite boyfriend. They are as interchangeable as a freelancer’s individual gigs. They are, from the beginning of the book and of their relationships with our temporary, meant to come and meant to go.

Our temporary is gone on assignments for so long that her boyfriends start to hang out together at her house. They call her to chat; they watch TV together. They become friends! At some point, they call up Farren to find a temp replacement for our temp, and she assigns herself to the job. Love life and work life collapse onto each other. Eventually, the boyfriends decide to marry Farren, in two-year stints. A lifetime of temporary assignments.

What is the real tragedy here? Is it that our narrator has lost the chance at a friendship with Farren? Is it that she’s poured years of her life into relationships that only partially fulfilled her, and that losing them to her temp agent is, yes, a loss, but ultimately not that devastating? As we watch her walk away from these people, it becomes ever clearer that the constant pull of work on her life has robbed her of the ability to spend time forging relationships that matter, or even to spend enough time on them to find out if they do. The parallels to our own lives are almost too devastatingly obvious to point out.

In a short scene with her mother, we learn that the lifelong quest, the seeking, the moving from here to there to the next place, hoping to just stay still for a while, has burdened her family for generations. Her mother suffered the same fate, as did her grandmother. When our temporary mentions marriage, her mother tersely replies, “Not us. That’s not what we do.”

There is no personal life to be had in this world defined by the pursuit of gainful employment — the closest she can get is a grafting of life onto work.  This is perfectly illustrated by the embroidered motto that decorates the couch in her mother’s house, There Is Nothing More Personal Than Doing Your Job, which would be equally at home as a poster on a wall at WeWork or The Wing.

As Leichter leads us into increasingly surreal realms, our temporary’s alienation becomes more palpable. She is completely alone in her quest, in competition with herself and with other temps, unable to keep a grip on her life at all. It is devastating. At one point toward the end of the novel, she encounters someone she knows from a different time: her childhood friend Anna, whose job was to open and close drawers every sixty minutes in a big house next door to the big house where our temporary opened and closed doors every forty minutes, a bullshit job if there ever was one. She recognizes Anna and spends an afternoon with her, but is unable to rekindle a bond — something in her “constantly halved, constantly qualified” life just doesn’t fit the frame of friendship — and leaves like “a ghost again set free.”

In what is perhaps the novel’s most tragic moment, we learn that the Chairman of the Board was our temporary’s father, their only relationship mediated through her assignment to carry him around her neck. By this point, though, she’s recognized her fate: an ephemeral, alienated life in which she’ll only ever find glimmers of joy by guiding other temporaries through their assignments in an attempt to “ensure for them something more sacred than survival.”

Our temporary doesn’t so much accept this fate as resign herself to it. This is crucial: she knows that survival is the bare minimum, that there is more to hope for, more to strive for. The tragedy is that our temporary is so alone, so alienated, that she can’t even fathom a collective struggle for that thing which is “more sacred than survival,” her full life.

Ultimately the novel is not about the quest for steady employment, or even a job. It’s about the quest for that life-affirming, eternal bond, that permanence, and the sheer tragedy not just of not finding it, but of looking for it in all the wrong places, of not knowing where to look for it because capitalism has so deeply fissured and pervaded our lives that it’s impossible to escape its yoke.

Temporary surfaces the emotional toll that constant precarity takes on us and shows us the deep devastation in that forever-long grind that swaps our personal lives for a job, that turns us into marketers of ourselves, that rips away our humanity and makes us into résumés, automatons, not people but job-seekers. The depth of that toll is so deep, and so tragic, that Leichter manages to fully capture it only by exalting the tale of our temporary into a realm that’s maddening, swirling, operatically dramatic, and ultimately just as real as life itself.