The Guest Lecture by Martin Riker

Black Cat

Review by Walter Cummins

In its opening section Martin Riker’s The Guest Lecture appears to be a critical study in disguise, a consideration of John Maynard Keynes based on his speculative essay, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” But the book turns out to be a unique approach to novel writing as it explores the mind and memories of the woman who will be giving the lecture on Keynes—Abigail/Abby. In her quest to interpret Keynes, who appears throughout as an imagined discussant, she actually is seeking to understand herself, how her life has gotten to its present state and what she must do to change it.

Riker’s ideal reader would be a person who has opted for a life of the mind and, in addition, has been a member of a university department, and, beyond that, has been on the cusp of giving a lecture to a large audience. I’ll confess that I’m that reader, and I have no idea how someone who hasn’t met at least one of those criteria would regard the novel. Abby, c’est moi—with the exception that I wasn’t denied tenure.

But central to the story of Abby’s life is Riker’s implicit belief that theories like those of Keynes and those of Abby about Keynes are inseparable from the sensibility of the person who developed those theories. In effect, ideas—even the most complex—are autobiographical, integral to who the thinker was at the time the thoughts emerged. In her imagined exchanges with Keynes, she tells him, “Because the person you were says a lot about how you saw the world, the ethics behind your economics, the importance you placed on public discourse, the importance you placed on all kinds of things.”

During the night of pondering Keynes and how she became a person who has theories about Keynes, Abby confronts her limitations and failures, emerging renewed at the end of the process. At the heart of the novel lies this uncited quotation from James Baldwin: “The barrier between oneself and one’s knowledge of oneself is high indeed.”

The novel takes place during the nighttime hours when an insomniac Abby literally lies in a bed in a mediocre hotel with her husband, Ed, and her pre-adolescent daughter, Ali. But Abby’s mind roams widely in time and space, initially in the pictured rooms of her house where each room is meant to be a mnemonic for a section of the talk, and eventually through the events and places of her life from childhood to the present moment.

The more she thinks about her past, the more she reveals her insecurities and vulnerabilities, like the panic attack in a Target parking lot that made her give up driving for good: “You drive fine for years, for all your adult life, then one day, in a split second, it’s too much. Not just the lights and sounds and fast motion, it’s also all the bad things that could happen. You see the full picture and it’s suffocating, or paralyzing. The full picture is always paralyzing.”

The dilemma of her planned talk that sets her off on this mental journey is Keynes’ prediction in his essay that the future economy will fulfill all our material needs and that the biggest dilemma people will face is “about how hard it will be, in a work-free world, for ordinary people to adjust” and find meaning in a jobless life.

While Abby plans to tell her audience that Keynes was being playful in this speculation, it speaks to her own occupational reality. Denied tenure by a committee representing a current version of those specified by Keynes in the quotation that serves as the novel’s epigraph: “And over against us, standing in the path, there is nothing but a few old gentlemen tightly buttoned-up in their frock coats, who only need to be treated with a little friendly disrespect and bowled over like ninepins.”

Unfortunately for Abby, she can ‘t bowl over the committee that voted against her because, she speculates, one eternal evaluator called a book she published with a medium-level university press “derivative.” She must revise her life plan. The mortgage on their house is her responsibility. With a further irony, husband Ed has chosen a variant of Keynes’ predicted future. He earns a bit through adjunct teaching and devotes most of his time to volunteering for important, but non-paying, social causes. Despite her love for him, she has moments of resentment.

Worse than the denial itself is the fear that the committee might have been right, as articulated to her through the fantasy Keynes: “The trouble being that it’s here, in your imagination, the place where you ought to feel most safe and free, that you are in fact most weighed down by doubt and fear. Part of you clearly thinks they are right about you, even though they can’t be, they have to be wrong or else your life’s work is pointless, and that is a level of personal negation you cannot possibly survive. No, there’s no room for that, no good it would do.”

Yet Abby comes to a crucial realization: “There are ways I could improve myself, but I am also capable. I am not powerless. I am not my past.” In contemplating what improvement would mean, she remembers the books and writers important to her and how much she likes teaching: “Teaching is a way to feel a part of things and to contribute to other people’s lives, just as my own teachers contributed to mine.”

She also comes to justify the life of the mind: “… I quickly remind myself that my subjects do matter, that striving to understand how the world works always matters …”

I realize for most people in that world for whom the concept of tenure is unthinkable such a fate would still seem like a luxury; but the novel isn’t a critique of a spoiled intellectual. It explores and reveals the fundamental connection of the thinking mind to the thoughts that emerge and, beyond that, to what we must care about to realize ourselves.

At the end of the novel Abby drifts into a half sleep in which her mind finds herself navigating a vast building in search of the auditorium where her audience awaits her, Keynes himself on the stage filling the time before her late appearance. I’ll admit to having versions of that dream, as have many of my colleagues, standing at a lectern and facing a packed house with no notes and no idea what I’m supposed to be talking about. Fortunately, Riker knows what his novel is about and has it all under control. For Abby, she walks onto the stage ready to face her audience: “I am thinking so many things.”