Cultivating the Arts of Life in “The Guest Lecture” – Chicago Review of Books


When Martin Riker’s novel The Guest Lecture opens, its main character, Abby, is lying awake in a hotel bed, trying not to wake her husband and daughter, anxiously planning a lecture on the economist John Maynard Keynes that she’s scheduled to give the next day. When the novel ends, Abby is lying awake in the same hotel bed, still trying not to wake her family, still planning the same lecture. Or maybe she’s fallen asleep. I’ve read it several times and I can’t exactly tell. In any case, it’s largely true that “nothing happens” in The Guest Lecture.

Riker’s novel is in good literary company as a book in which “nothing happens.” In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Estragon tells us that “nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes.” W. H. Auden’s poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” declares that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Virginia Woolf’s story “The Mark on the Wall” is a classic “nothing happens” text in that it consists entirely of the narrator’s thoughts as she contemplates a small, round mark on the wall across the room. “Nothing happens” in these works in the sense that they have little or no plot, but like The Guest Lecture, reading them turns our sense of the phrase inside out. What begins as a statement of absence transforms into a positive construction of an alternate world: one that questions our inherited sense of reality and shows how much we take for granted in our everyday lives.

The Guest Lecture performs this transformation partly through Abby’s analysis of John Maynard Keynes, particularly his essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” from 1930. An academic economist, Abby has recently published a book on Keynes and has been invited by a community group “somewhere in middle America” to give a talk on it. According to Abby, but contrary to popular opinion, Keynes wrote to try to radically transform humanity’s approach to economic life. In “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” for example, Keynes argued that with the right approach, humans could essentially solve the “economic problem” of how to feed and clothe themselves and could move on to the “permanent problem” of what they want to be, or how to cultivate the “arts of life.”

According to Abby, Keynes wasn’t arguing that this transformation would actually happen; he was trying to make it so. Instead of a scientist trying to establish objective truth, she says, we should see Keynes as engaged in “an ongoing negotiation of provisional truths through persuasion.” She knows that the world Keynes was trying to create was shaped by his Victorian background, but she’s not encouraging her readers to recreate Keynes’s specific vision. She just wants them to dig deeper into their imaginations and participate in the same project of worldmaking.

Much of The Guest Lecture involves Abby rehearsing this argument, and one of the novel’s primary achievements is that it makes this rehearsal so engaging. To remember her talk, Abby uses an ancient rhetorical method of associating different parts of the talk with different rooms of her house, so the rehearsal also serves as a tour of her house, complete with memories of domestic life with her husband and daughter. She also imagines herself talking with Keynes himself as she rehearses, and his tolerant, good-humored personality helps keep the novel from getting bogged down in economic analysis.

It also helps that the novel positions Abby’s reading of Keynes as part of her life more broadly. Partway through, we learn that Abby wrote the essay on which her book is based at a point in her life where she felt aimless and confused. Three years into her tenure clock, exhausted from parenting a 5-year-old daughter, afraid of losing herself to a career she wasn’t sure she wanted—at some point, she realizes that her argument about Keynes doubles as a reminder that she chose her career because she, too, thought she could write her way to a different world.

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We also learn that Abby has recently been denied tenure, despite publishing at a satisfactory rate, teaching well, and performing an acceptable amount of service. She suspects sexism, but it still adds a layer of self-doubt to her reflections. It also sends Abby into a rabbit hole of self-analysis, narrating stories of the most important relationships in her life, trying to make sense of things. She doesn’t come to any conclusions, but her stories demonstrate the same mix of thoughtfulness and humility that characterize her economic work. In an interview after his compelling first novel, Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return, Riker explained that he’s always wanted his writing to seem “friendly, approachable.” He also mentioned that his favorite writers “read like they might easily live next-door to you. You can go over and borrow their lawnmowers, plus they write these wonderful, interesting things.” These all serve as perfect descriptions, I think, of the voice that Riker creates in The Guest Lecture.

And still, the voice is not disembodied. Just as Beckett’s characters are not merely symbols but are embodied, historical beings who call for attention and care, Abby’s recollections happen while she’s in bed with her husband and daughter. Rather than risk waking them up by turning on a light or checking the time, she spends the entire novel motionless, letting them sleep. Late in the book she calls it “the only truly selfless act” she’s ever performed. I doubt that’s true, but it’s nice regardless. And maybe it can remind us that making new worlds can start by caring for those closest to us.

The Guest Lecture
By Martin Riker
Grove Press, Black Cat
Published January 24, 2023

Dan Kubis

I teach English composition and literature at the University of Pittsburgh. I also review books for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Boston Globe, among others.


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