THE GUEST LECTURE, by Martin Riker
Anthony Powell disliked speaking in public, as did Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Larkin and Max Beerbohm. Elizabeth Bishop is said to have been hopeless at the podium. Wittgenstein, on a dais, would begin to stammer. According to Helen Vendler, the poet A.R. Ammons’s stage fright was so severe that he wouldn’t pick up prizes.
I’ve long sympathized with these writers because I share their affliction. I distrust writers who are too comfortable with a microphone clipped behind an ear. The poet Kay Ryan has written that, at literary conferences, she resents “personality horning in on the real question: the words on the page.” (I love Kay Ryan.) Alas, playing a writer onstage tends to pay better than being one behind a desk.
Martin Riker’s light, charming and shyly philosophical second novel, “The Guest Lecture,” details a tortured night inside the head of a young academic, an economist named Abigail. She’s sleepless because she’s an insomniac. She’s doubly wired because she must give a talk the next day, one for which she’s woefully underprepared.
The talk, which is about John Maynard Keynes, doesn’t matter. Abigail was recently denied tenure, an experience that’s dented her sense of herself — she feels like an eagle outed as a mere tern — and thrown her family’s life (she’s the breadwinner) into peril. The house will probably need to be sold. A new, worse town will need to be moved to.
Her speech will be in front of a lay audience; she’ll never see these people again. Abigail is tossing and turning anyway in a hotel room, revisiting every mistake she’s ever made. Les Murray called this sort of thinking “the 4 a.m. Show” and I have it almost every night, too. How do you spray smoke on the bees inside your mind? Next to her in the king-size bed are her husband, Ed, who’s too nice a guy, and her daughter, Ali. They’ve come along to be supportive.
“The Guest Lecture” slips into a meta-magical gear when Keynes himself shows up to lend Abigail a hand. Here he is, with his “kind eyes, horsey features, white push-broom mustache.” It’s like the moment in “Annie Hall” when Marshall McLuhan arrives. He’s sympathetic but not overly optimistic. “Tomorrow, let’s face it, won’t go very well,” he says.
Abigail is going to try to remember her talk using the “loci” method, in which you assign different portions of your speech to rooms in a building that you know well. Then you simply walk though the building as you speak. Before long, she’s giving Keynes a tour of her house. This is the entire plot of “The Guest Lecture.” Along the way, we learn a bit about Keynes, his life and his thinking, and a lot more about what’s going on inside Abigail’s head and how she ended up, in her words, “screwed, shattered, hexed, scorched, gutted, mortified, petrified and whatever other words I can find to describe my self-immolation.”
She feels she’s brought the disgrace of tenure denial on herself because, after a personal essay of hers went viral online, she turned it into a lightweight, personal book about herself and Keynes. Her (male) colleagues sneered at it, and found it derivative. She didn’t hit her intense, “Glengarry Glen Ross”-style numbers, in terms of published peer-reviewed articles, soulless and grinding as they are.
Riker is himself an academic. He teaches in the English department at Washington University in St. Louis, and he’s the co-founder and publisher of the feminist press Dorothy. He’s tinkered before in his fiction with reanimating intellectuals and their ideas. In his undersung first novel, “Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return” (2018), Johnson’s spirit moves through various other bodies after his death.
In “The Guest Lecture,” Keynes is a prop for a novel that’s barely a novel. (The other characters are sketched, as if they were James Thurber drawings, in a gentle line or two.) Riker pulls it off because he’s observant, and he has a grainy, semi-comic feel for what angst and failure really feel like. His antinovel resembles books that split commentary on a writer with more personal material — books like Julian Barnes’s novel “Flaubert’s Parrot” and Geoff Dyer’s quasi-biography of D.H. Lawrence, “Out of Sheer Rage.”
Abigail is more interested in the moral philosopher in Keynes than in the economist. It was Keynes, after all, who said that if economists were so smart — if they could predict the future better than the rest of us — they’d all be filthy rich. He thought that over time, through efficiencies and technologies, human beings would have more leisure time on their hands. The issue would become: What is a good life? How best to live?
These ideas animate Abigail because, now that’s she been tossed from her career path, she’s trying to work out what really matters. She feels like a failure in the way that many people do. She didn’t steal an old man’s pension, and she’s not living in the back of a car, but her plans didn’t work out. Her life is not cushioned with an inheritance; she’s not where she thought she would be. Here reality comes, like a torpedo from its tube.
A key text in this discussion, if you’re the type who’s interested in supplemental reading, is Seymour Krim’s essay “For My Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business,” in which he admits that, at the age of 51, he is still not sure what he wants to be.
In the vein of Nicholson Baker, Riker is a noticer. He describes, for example, the “unconvincing coziness of carpet on a concrete floor.” Abigail recalls a psychedelic trip she once took on mushrooms, and she realizes that “your mushroom mind is mostly benevolent, while your insomnia mind is out to destroy you.”
Is family enough to get you by in life? The problem with family, Abigail thinks, is that “it makes you less crazy than you’d otherwise be, but it doesn’t allow you to get as crazy as you sometimes need to.” In Riker’s hands, Abigail is good company, and sometimes for a novel that’s enough.
THE GUEST LECTURE | By Martin Riker | 241 pp. | Black Cat | Paperback, $17