Gig workers try to stave off the end of humanity

“The Temps” by Andrew DeYoung. (Keylight Books/TNS)

“The Temps” by Andrew DeYoung; Keylight Books (264 pages, $27.99)

What’s your preferred plot about the end of the world? Zombie hordes? Viral contagion? Some inhumane corporate scheme that gets out of hand?

Andrew DeYoung’s seriocomic second novel, “The Temps,” has an apocalypse for every taste. It opens with a mass human catastrophe that’s witnessed by Jacob, a temp on his first day at Delphi, an omnivorous megacorp. (“What don’t we do?” he’s told when he asks someone what his new employer does.) An open-air all-staff meeting is interrupted by a yellow mist that leaves every attendee crazed and homicidal. The mist soon goes global. But 350 Delphi temps, sealed in the headquarters building, are spared the madness.

DeYoung delivers this global catastrophe with a bit of a wink: Finally, no more all-staff meetings! Among the novel’s chief targets is the anonymizing, dehumanizing world of corporate drudgework. Jacob and his cohort need to fight the mist, but also a brain-killing workplace cult of compelled ignorance.

And one of the jokes is that this takes some doing. A self-appointed leader introduces himself via PowerPoint. While the temps gather resources and brace for attack, they also get back to work, hoping to spreadsheet their way back to civilization. As one temp observes, “Isn’t this basically what people have been doing for hundreds of years, with religion? Some absent, all-seeing god is watching -- and if you do certain things, do them exactly the right way, that god will rescue you, bring you into paradise.”

So in large part, “The Temps” is an allegorical yarn about the modern workplace, with a dash of “The Walking Dead” and Don DeLillo’s “White Noise” tossed in. It fits well on the ever-growing shelf of novels that similarly critique corporate conformity, like Ling Ma’s “Severance” and Dave Eggers’ “The Circle.”

But DeYoung, who won a Minnesota Book Award for his 2017 novel, “The Exo Project,” distinguishes this book by working in a more meta theme: Why are we so obsessed with these tales of mass destruction anyway? And why do they fall into such familiar ruts? Characters make multiple references to quest tales and hero’s journeys. (Jacob was an English major before working at Delphi.) Hero narratives have ways of making people selfish, DeYoung suggests: The temps’ first organizing efforts take on a survivalist and macho bent. And when the reason behind the yellow mist emerges, it has a grim, selfish narrative behind it, too.

The gears in DeYoung’s own narrative sometimes grind because he’s working at cross-purposes — he strives to construct a thriller-like dystopian narrative while pulling at the threads of thriller and dystopian tropes. Characterization is sacrificed for the sake of point-scoring. But the temps do make good points: “They gave us the jobs they didn’t want and asked us to thank them for it,” one notes. And the main point gets across firmly, and darkly: Stories have consequences, so be careful about whose story you trust.

Mark Athitakis is a writer in Arizona.

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