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The Guest Lecture


The Guest Lecture

The setting for Martin Riker's new novel, THE GUEST LECTURE, will feel all too familiar to anyone who has suffered from insomnia.

Abby, a feminist economist, lies awake on one side of the king-sized bed that she is currently sharing with her husband, Ed, and their school-aged daughter, Ali, in a mediocre hotel room. Abby, who has struggled with sleeplessness before, longs to be back at home, where at least she could retreat to her office and feel productive without worrying about waking up the rest of the family. This time, though, Ed and Ali have accompanied her on a business trip. She has agreed to deliver a guest lecture on the intellectual legacy of John Maynard Keynes the following day. But she is feeling anxious, underprepared and physically stuck all at the same time.

"[Abby's] voice is wry, funny and self-absorbed in the best way.... THE GUEST LECTURE is a brilliant and important book that I will continue to think about for many years to come."

Ed, who encourages Abby to try to deliver her talk extemporaneously, recommends that she use the loci method, an ancient technique for memorization: "You assign a different portion of the speech to each room of a building you know well, then you mentally move through this building as you go, remembering each speech portion by picturing yourself in the room you put it in." So that's what Abby is doing now, mentally rehearsing her speech by making her way --- in her imagination --- through the rooms of her house.

It turns out, though, that Abby is not alone in this exercise. She is accompanied by none other than Keynes himself, who seems flattered that she has chosen to focus her talk on his 1930 essay, "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren." This seemingly optimistic vision of a future that is ostensibly our present hasn't quite played out the way that Keynes imagined.

As Abby mentally travels through the rooms of her house, readers learn not only a surprising amount about Keynes, utopian ideals, rhetoric, economics and the politics of academia, but also much more about her personal history. It turns out, for example, that Abby's insomnia and underlying anxiety is not simply nerves about the following day's lecture. She recently experienced a professional crisis, one that leaves her own future very much in doubt and prompts her to question not only Keynes' brand of optimism but also all of the various choices that led her to economics in the first place.

As Abby's stream-of-consciousness narration continues, her intellectual energy, as well as her concerns for the future of her family and all of humanity, become intertwined with stories from her childhood and youth, as well as big ideas about moral responsibility, the nature of happiness and the trajectories of history. If this all sounds very grandiose, in some ways it is --- but just like the rooms that Abby traverses, her philosophical meanderings are always grounded in real-life concerns. Her voice is wry, funny and self-absorbed in the best way.

I was reminded more than once of the mix of domesticity and political concerns that characterized the intense interiority of Lucy Ellmann's DUCKS, NEWBURYPORT (though it's worth noting that Riker's book is only about a quarter of its length). It's rare that a novel of ideas should also be so passionately engaged with the life of the family --- including marriage, parenthood and anxieties about personal finance --- as well as economic theory.

THE GUEST LECTURE is a brilliant and important book that I will continue to think about for many years to come.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 27, 2023

The Guest Lecture
by Martin Riker

  • Publication Date: January 24, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Black Cat
  • ISBN-10: 0802160417
  • ISBN-13: 9780802160416