It’s a bit funny now, in the midst of a year riven by some of the deepest divides in our country’s history, to think back to 2013, when one of the major questions raging through literary fiction was the “likeability” of certain female characters. The ones who were a little too angry, a little too unruly, a little too careless with themselves and others, and not in a cute rom-com way. This was not an entirely new trend, of course. Literature has been strewn with the wreckage of women since writers started wielding pens, from Medea’s monstrous motherhood to Anna Karenina’s scandalous affairs to Jean Rhys’s alcoholics pickling themselves in Parisian cafes. Many of these characters were depicted as cautionary tales, but the late 2010s saw a surge in a new kind of antiheroine, one as likely to be ravaged by the grinding wheels of capitalist inequity as a poor choice in companion; they were also allowed to live, even if it wasn’t particularly well. Ling Ma’s prescient pandemic-themed Severance, Halle Butler’s scathing satire The New Me, and Melissa Broder’s erotically inventive The Pisces were some early harbingers. But in 2020, she truly arrived. Let’s call her “The Catastrofemale.”
Of all the recent novels that fit this descriptor, Hilary Leichter’s Temporary may be the most attuned to the current moment, when those of us lucky enough to still maintain “regular” employment can feel like we’ve accidentally fallen into the gig economy of remote offices and fungible hours. As rendered in Leichter’s spark plug prose, even the most absurd jobs are bogged down in drudgery and routine; here a temp could as soon be asked to replace a parrot on a pirate ship as haunt a house, neither of which will be particularly fulfilling. The novel runs on the sort of funhouse logic that Lewis Carroll would have admired, where “putting a pin in it” is literal, and each new narrative leap offers Leichter a chance to expand and shrink her creation to fit the contours of her next assignment. The nameless narrator is forever referring to herself with cliches of agreeableness; she’s “a stickler” on the job and “a good sport” with her many boyfriends, all of whom serve and are identified by a unique purpose (the “real estate boyfriend,” the “handy boyfriend,” and, perhaps most useful, the “tallest boyfriend”.) Whenever she falters in an interview or worries she might not be up to the task she reminds herself, “I try to find comfort with lying every day, practicing mostly on myself.” Put that on a throw pillow and you’d have an Etsy bestseller.
What at first seems like a random assemblage of sketches drawn in cartoonish extremes reveals itself to be constructed with a distinct moral clarity that makes more sense than most traditional career trajectories. Being a temporary in Leichter’s world is a role you’re born into, a lineage handed down generation to generation, and, like most women’s work, it’s never done, even in the midst of the ostensible end times. The narrator’s mother recites bedtime stories of the “shepherd of pamphlets,” the “checker of facts,” and the pink book of While You Were Out message sheets to prepare her daughter for her destiny; peppered throughout the narrative are sections in italics that tell of “The First Temp” created by the gods so they could have some spare time. It’s the thankless labor of executive assistants and data entry drones made mythic. In contrast are people like the narrator’s boss Farren, whose steady employment at the placement agency grants her the benefit of living out a story with a predetermined, and therefore comfortable, arc. The concept of “the permanence” as something to strive for is introduced early on and provides the melancholic undercurrent to the narrator’s journey. That she often wonders how it will feel to reach such a state rather than what it actually means to achieve it will ring true to anyone who’s struggled to uncouple their self-worth from their productivity.
What does success even look like when our wages are lower than our parents’ but more is expected of us? How can we hope to find a stable job when expendability is our most desirable asset? Why do any of us do any of this? These are the sorts of questions Leichter’s book asks but cannot answer, and while there may be means of escape for some of us, as the narrator learns, they always come with compromises. Perhaps the best any modern woman can hope for is to follow the guidance of The First Temp and “find glimmers of joy in this ephemeral life.” The same permanence awaits us all and it doesn’t care how you got your paycheck.
Although the narrator of Jessica Gross’s debut novel Hysteria has a steady gig as a teacher, she is similarly nameless, a reflection not so much of the world’s ability to discard her as her compulsion to discard herself. We meet her masturbating to the latticework pattern in her radiator, waking with another hangover after another ill-advised hookup, this time with her roommate’s brother. “Tomorrow I’ll start over,” she tells herself before heading right back out to her neighborhood bar, consumed with shameful thoughts about her behavior but unable to stop herself from engaging in it. The self-destruction on display here, captured with near-forensic detail of bodily fluids and poorly synchronized parts, will be familiar to any readers of Ottessa Moshfegh. But the intimacy and empathy with which Gross maps out her character’s neuroses feels like a distinct rejoinder to modern culture’s tendency to codify “wellness” as attainable only with the right athletic wear, or health insurance. The narrator’s mental distress can’t simply be papered over with Instagram yoga challenges or a fancy gym membership, and anyone who’s made a deliberate mess of their lives will recognize themselves in these pages.
Where Gross’s protagonist may differ from many readers is in her privileged upbringing. The product of two psychiatrist parents on New York’s tony Upper West Side, her inertia is more attributable to lack of will than lack of funds. It’s clear from her relentless inner monologue that her father’s emotional remoteness wounds her, as do the perceived social hostilities of her peers, particularly the beautiful wealthy young women she is equally contemptuous and envious of. It all might seem oppressively narcissistic but Hysteria is hiding a surrealist trick up its sleeve: there’s a new bartender at her regular spot and he’s the spitting image of Sigmund Freud, whom the narrator has fantasized about since seeing him on a book jacket when she was a child. She’s just finished giving a clandestine blowjob to a stranger on the bar’s back patio when she meets him, racked with self-disgust, and while he mixes her next drink he utters three words that will determine the rest of the narrator’s trajectory: “I saw you.”
Whether the hallucinatory analysis that ensues from this encounter is real or not is beside the point, at least for Gross, nor is she especially interested in interrogating the validity of Freud’s theories. In his day the titular condition was often invoked when women had become “unmanageable” or unresponsive to more traditional treatment, and while the word itself is never used in Hysteria, it hovers over the proceedings as a reminder of the dangers surface-level interventions can pose, of seeking answers in texts rather than talk. “‘You can’t induce despair by writing about it! No one ever committed suicide because of a book!’” the narrator says to a colleague late in the novel. Ultimately the heady page-turning rush of Gross’s prose asks something contradictory of its readers: to slow down, notice things, listen without judgment—perhaps to ourselves most of all.
In some ways Edie, the protagonist of Raven Leilani’s much-hyped debut Luster, feels like the flipside of the coin to Gross’s narrator. Technically she lives in the same city, though she’s several stops further on the L train in a Bushwick apartment with a rodent problem. Both her parents are dead by the start of the novel, and she’s three years into an unfulfilling career on the lower rungs of the publishing ladder. She makes art but hesitates to call herself an artist. She’s susceptible to the glitter of male attention, but hyper conscious of its shortcomings. She’s also black, which means she’s keenly aware of how the people around her perceive her—particularly Eric, the white man twice her age who just took her on a first date to Six Flags. He’s in an open marriage, but Edie is okay with following the rules laid out by his wife Rebecca because there’s a currency in being wanted when the rest of your life feels perilous, when confirming the solidity of your body only seems possible when it’s crashing into another. The early stages of their courtship are captured in an electric swirl of shifting power dynamics and calculated intimacies, a quicksand connection that seems on the verge of collapse when Edie sneaks into his home and is found by his wife. Rebecca promptly invites her to a party where she meets Akila, their adopted daughter who has never seen another black person in their neighborhood before. “Even with good men, you are always waiting for the surprise,” as Edie says.
Leilani has a special gift for reconstructing the way late-stage millennials breathlessly narrate their own lives in her prose, with Edie’s internal monologue barreling through the hairpin turns of her life as if to lay claim to its tragedies before anyone else can. In quick succession she loses her admin job and apartment and starts making ends meet as a bike messenger for a delivery app, human interaction reduced to asking customers to confirm her name “just to hear the sound.” She has no family or friends to speak of, which goes some way towards explaining why she’s willing to accept Rebecca’s invitation to come back with her to Jersey when their paths recross. The second half of Luster is more ruminative than the first, tracking the repercussions of this decision as the dissonance of Edie’s presence in the family home begins to take on the awkward contours of domesticity. Her position as observer takes the form of digressions on everything from the calibrations that must be made when talking to white people to the comforts and degradations of long-term partnership to the hazards and joys of ushering another person’s child into black womanhood, as well as her own family’s proximity to violence.
The tinderbox of unsteady intersectionality that Leilani sets up here does eventually ignite. Ultimately, though, the topic she seems most interested in plumbing isn’t race or sexual mores but the great unspoken affliction of our modern times: loneliness. “No one wants what no one wants,” Edie says early in the novel. Every character here, with varying levels of acknowledgment, is trapped in a sphere of isolation, whether as a woman of color, an adopted daughter, or a neglected spouse, and their inability to reconcile themselves to one another until it no longer matters lends the novel’s final scenes an almost unbearable poignancy that hits differently now than it might have in, say, February.
Though it may be hard to imagine now, this year will end. But the effects of what we’ve endured—a horrifically botched response to COVID-19, the relentless injustices of police brutality, the fascistic impulses of our current leaders, the apocalyptic destruction wrought by unchecked climate change—will continue to ripple out as the rest of the decade unfolds. Writers are likely still trying to figure out how to respond to all of this in their art. If these three novels are any indication, one thing is certain: the women will be as difficult as their times. Their furious fumbling isn’t unlikeable; it’s indispensable.
By Hilary Leichter
Coffee House Press
Published March 3, 2020
By Jessica Gross
Published August 18, 2020
By Raven Leilani
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published August 4, 2020
Sara Batkie is the author of the story collection Better Times, which won the 2017 Prairie Schooner Prize and is now available from University of Nebraska Press. Her stories have been published in various journals, honored with a 2017 Pushcart Prize, and twice received Notable Story citations in the Best American Short Stories anthology series. Born in Bellevue, Washington and raised mostly in Iowa, Sara currently lives and works in Madison, Wisconsin.