The Trouble with Writing About the End of the World: A Review of Andrew DeYoung’s The Temps
Adam P. Newton
The Temps. Andrew DeYoung. Keylight Books, March 29, 2022.
Writing a book about the end of the world in 2022 can’t be easy. Telling a story wherein millions of people die under mysterious circumstances while millions of people in the real world have died from a misunderstood disease could be fraught with complications.
Reading a book about the end of the world in that same scenario definitely isn’t everyone’s cup of tea either. The story must be compelling and appealing while also delivering the right amount of terror and fear of the unknown. In a world where truth is often stranger than fiction, it also needs to feel real enough without being ripped from the headlines. And if the book aims for any sort of social commentary, the plot and morals can’t be obnoxious, obvious, or ham-fisted.
Luckily, Andrew DeYoung avoids most of those problems with The Temps. It combines slice-of-life workplace antics with dystopian science fiction to tell the story of the 350 temporary workers—known as “temps”—who work for a company called Delphi, an international conglomerate with immense power and influence over society. They get trapped in their office building when a global catastrophe occurs, and many of them see the events happen in real time, when thousands of full-time employees violently die at each other’s hands. The book tells the story of the months following that tragedy, as told through the eyes of four main characters – Jacob, Swati, Lauren, and Dominic.
Jacob sees himself as a classic “beta” male, complete with all of the baggage connoted by that term in online communities. Raised in relative comfort as a cishet white guy, he struggled to find consistent employment with his college education and literally returned to his parents’ basement. Swati works part-time at Delphi teaching yoga to the salaried employees, but what she really wants to do is put her business degree to good use by starting her own yoga studio. She’s a driven woman who wants to make a difference in the world without succumbing to all of the excesses of modern capitalism.Lauren is a vintage over-educated yet under-employed twenty-something who loves the liberal arts. Armed with her degrees in classics and psychology, she spends her time creating personality quizzes that help Delphi collect vast amounts of consumer data. Lastly, after applying for several different roles for Delphi at various job fairs over the prior year, Dominic temps in the business analytics department. Armed with a night school business degree and a loathing for his uncle’s barely-getting-by roofing company, he is anxious to prove himself and achieve long-lasting success.
The characters are diverse without being performative, as each provides a different lens into the trials and tribulations of life in the 21st century. In lesser hands, our lead characters could come across as obvious and one-sidedly woke, but DeYoung escapes those pratfalls by crafting four fleshed-out perspectives with ample character development.
The ideas, framing, and overall intent of The Temps are captivating. It’s a stirring and satirical potboiler that mixes science fiction, political intrigue, and existential ennui about one’s place in the world. On one hand, it’s basically a “bottle episode” in that the core details of the story take place in a single location. On the other hand, the book is about an apocalypse that seems to have encompassed the entire world. By focusing upon four protagonists with different backgrounds, DeYoung provides multiple perspectives into how the temps address the aftermath of the catastrophe, which allows for a more nuanced reading. It gleefully critiques all manner of modernity’s problems with incisive insights into people’s conflicted motivations. Dominic deserves the right to succeed on his own terms so he can defeat generational trauma, but he’s a cautionary tale about the hustle-fueled business culture that idolizes economic growth above all else. Jacob and Lauren represent different twists on millennial angst, in that they grew up in a world of creature comforts yet feel stymied at every turn in trying to find a fulfilling life. Delphi itself represents an amalgam of the brands and social media platforms that dominate our lives, right down to how they appear to be overtly benevolent even as they inculcate an over-reliance on technology that definitely has our worst interests in mind.
I was especially enamored with the third quarter of The Temps as it described the day-to-day banality of the temps’ collective existence once they secured enough food and shelter in the office building. They literally devised a government from the ground up, complete with equitable distribution of goods and resources, not to mention daily tasks and recreation. As DeYoung describes in the book’s Interlude:
“Some of the temps can even, on a good day, forget the basic facts of their situation, the predicament they’re in. These temps simply choose not to remember that the world ended, that they survived a catastrophe, that they’re stranded in the office building of a corporation that paid them shitty hourly wages to do humiliating jobs that weren’t even supposed to last, that they are at best a few months away from a hunger sharper and more painful than any of them have ever known.”
Their various interactions with the rest of the 350 temps feel authentic, especially when the book’s pacing lends itself to slowly building tension. Swati, Lauren, and Dominic all take various roles on the leadership team, while Jacob investigates the mystery of Tristan Brandt, the founder and CEO of Delphi.
The plot frays too much for my tastes in the last quarter, mostly because I disagree with how DeYoung wraps up various threads. Not only does the reveal of the Big Bad and their machinations feel a bit too cliched, but the book itself comes to a much tidier end than I prefer. It also goes for an over-the-top message about the intersection of tech companies, big business, and the government without being totally earned. t’s one thing to suggest that the powerful elites in the world typically align their efforts to protect themselves at the expense of the majority. But it’s totally another to magically shoehorn those players into the same room as the story shuffles to its finale. In an attempt to be Swiftian and Orwellian, it borrows its pacing and framing too heavily from Ready Player One, The Hunger Games, and similar YA novels. And that’s far too safe for me, as it sucked the tension right out of the room.
To be clear, The Temps is not a YA book, as it discusses heavy adult ideas and themes, complete with plenty of references to adult content and activities. However, the rapidity at which we reach the conclusion of the events reminded me of such efforts—especially the faux cinematic staging. It definitely left me wanting much more in terms of using the characters’ growth and development to actually impact how the story ended. I would have much rather read about how Swati, Lauren, and their friends started building a new world out of the rubble of the old one than the generic example of “Great Man Theory” we received. Standalone books about the apocalypse that choose to end by showing how humanity might rise from the ashes really should involve the characters we followed the entire time.
The Temps was a quick and rambunctious read because DeYoung intentionally invested so much time in the actual lives of the temps and how they processed the events. He has a good voice for people, themes, and action, especially in terms of developing the inner lives of the four protagonists in relation to their interactions with the other temps. Hence, while the denouement proved ultimately unsatisfying, the overall writing consistently held my attention, so I would definitely read more from this author in the future.
Adam P. Newton lives in Texas. For a day job, he creates content for a clean energy company. In his free time, he spends time with his family, reads a lot, listens to vinyl, drinks coffee, and writes. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.
This review was commissioned from an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for review. It was edited by Adam McLain and copyedited by Misha Grifka Wander. The author and editors had no previous acquaintance. A review copy was arranged from Turner Publishing by ARB.