Martin Riker’s The Guest Lecture begins with a paragraph of stage direction, establishing the scene that will make up the entirety of the novel. The story takes place in a hotel room “somewhere in middle America.” The room is dark, and its king-size bed holds three bodies:
On the left lies a man, in the middle a girl, both on their sides and sleeping. On the right: a woman on her back, awake. Her eyes are either open and staring at the ceiling, or else closed; at any given moment, it’s one or the other. She lies perfectly still, not making a sound, but inside her head, things are busy. A lecture is about to begin.
There’s something slyly prankish in that last line, as though a rug were being pulled out from under one’s feet. The drama we have been promised collapses into disquisition. The anticipated stage set, with its props and colorful backdrop, has been replaced with the podium—or perhaps the pulpit. But the speech that is about to begin is not easily classified as an existing form of rhetoric.
Abby—she who lies awake in bed—is an economist who is to speak the following day on John Maynard Keynes’s 1930 essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” It’s an odd choice of subject: writing on the cusp of the Great Depression, Keynes argues that the downturn is merely “a temporary phase of maladjustment” on the overarching road to global prosperity and offers utopian predictions for the next century (a fifteen-hour workweek, endless leisure time) that have obviously not been borne out.
Abby, too, has failed to predict—and prepare for—the future. Instead of writing her lecture she decided, on the advice of her husband, Ed (one of the two sleeping bodies next to her—the other belongs to their daughter, Ali), to improvise. “It always impresses people when you wing it,” she recalls him saying months earlier, back when the engagement was still far off enough to inspire endless optimism.
Ed, who had been reading Cicero, suggested that she try the “loci method,” an ancient technique that designates the features of a familiar location—usually the speaker’s own house—as mnemonics for remembering any long speech or narrative. Resolving to make productive use of her insomnia, Abby tries to visualize the lecture that she has only hazily sketched out. In the living room she will introduce Keynes and his essay. In the dining room she will give two reasons why his predictions were wrong. In the kitchen she will defend his essay, arguing that it has a narrative purpose beyond literal forecasting.
That’s the plan, anyway. But the insomniac mind, much like economics, favors circular trajectories over linear arcs. Her mental rehearsal is frequently stymied by second-guessing (“I could crib some lines from Muñoz? Or pretty much any Frankfurt-type philosopher. Stuart Hall’s ‘narrative construction of reality’?”), and the whimsical task of mentally recreating her house proves a pleasant distraction. “A tall room with good windows,” she says, invoking her dining room.
Giant funereal sideboard inherited from Ed’s family—not a treasured heirloom, his mom bought it at a flea market—that in any other room would look like a set prop for The Addams Family but in this room really works, somehow…. A Persian rug. When did we get that? Threadbare, needs replacing, but I like it anyway.
Mnemonic comes from the Greek mnēmē, or “remembrance,” and while these objects are supposed to serve as lecture prompts for Abby, their function is more often Proustian, sparking expansive recollections of family life (reading The Wind in the Willows to Ali, fleeing a basement flood shortly after Trump’s election), as well as some more painful memories of her academic career. At times, Abby becomes both author and audience of her own lecture—an ancient rhetorical device otherwise known as “negative self-talk.” She chides herself for having agreed to give
a talk about optimism at a time when I am personally feeling anything but. When I have been stripped of my own optimism by recent life events that I am not going to think about now. No, I am not. No, I am not. Except perhaps just to acknowledge the irony, that here I am serving myself up as some sort of expert on how to proceed through the world with intention and purpose when in fact I am utterly lost. When everything I have ever worked for is STOP. Just stop.
Abby, it turns out, is in a unique position to contemplate Keynes’s failure to imagine the persistence of economic precarity. She has recently been denied tenure by her university and faces the rather bleak prospect of returning to adjunct work. The loci method, therefore, entails a painful irony: the house she mentally traverses, the house in which she believed she and Ed would grow old, will have to be sold.
It’s a minor tragedy in an era of expansive crises, and Abby is acutely conscious of its proportion. “Are you really going to mourn your kitchen?” she berates herself at one point. “That’s what you’re going to mourn?” This thought is quickly followed by another: “It’s not just a kitchen, though. The kitchen is metonymic.” The kitchen, like all the rooms of her mental house, is both metonymic and mnemonic—both a symbol of the life she’s lost and the imaginative ground on which the novel unfolds. “My house,” she says, again and again, her fondness growing possessive and desperate.
The birthplace of the novel, Walter Benjamin argued in 1936, is “the individual in his isolation, the individual who can no longer speak of his concerns in exemplary fashion, who himself lacks counsel and can give none.” The person who is alone with their own thoughts has been the fundamental dramatic situation since the seventeenth century and is, according to Benjamin, what distinguishes the novel from the epic. Still, it’s hard to think of a recent novel that’s gone as doggedly as Riker’s does into the tunnel of pure interiority. Even the narrator of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s The Bathroom (1985), sequestered in his tub, has a radio for companionship. Even Dostoevsky’s Underground Man has pen and paper. While Abby is presumably within arm’s length of a smartphone and a television remote, she refuses to stir for fear of waking Ed and especially Ali, who is a light sleeper. It is this act of selflessness—the courage to inhabit her own mind—that endows her story with the gravity of a mythological quest. She envisions herself as “unsung hero to her loved ones, a sweet husband-daughter duo who will never know the epic battles she fought, through the darkest hours, so that they could get some sleep.”
As for giving counsel, that is not yet beyond her reach. Anticipating that the descent into the psychic underworld will be perilous and lonely, Abby conjures Keynes as a kind of Virgil—if Virgil were not only a spiritual guide but also an oratorical coach. She pictures him beside her in every room of her imagined house, lounging on her living room sofa with his “horsey features” and “white push-broom mustache,” shuffling a deck of cards at her dining room table. He addresses her as “Abigail” and offers grandfatherly reminders to stay on track. “You were born into an era of overload,” he interjects during her digressive narration of his biography. “Leaving things out is the great unmastered art form of your age.”
Economists deal in projection, forecasting the future, but Riker is also playing on the word’s psychoanalytic connotation. “As you know perfectly well, I am just your imagination,” Keynes reminds her. “Anything I ask, you are asking yourself.” At times, his voice loses its contours and becomes indistinguishable from her own. She has created him, she observes, “because I always work better with feedback, but Ed is asleep,” to which Keynes replies, echoingly:
“You rely on him for feedback.”
“Except that I, being you, am not ‘feedback.’ I’m a sounding board.”
“So, if I am standing in for Ed, that suggests that what you rely on him for is not really to give feedback, but only to be a sounding board.”
I think he understands that.
“What he perhaps does not understand is that you do not really even need him as a sounding board. Evidently, you can do ‘sounding board’ all by yourself.”
He’s a very good sounding board. Things sound better bounced off of him than off of other surfaces.
“Acoustical, also loving, Ed.”
Men have done worse.
It’s true that Abby can do “sounding board” all by herself. The lecture hall of her mind houses a rotating roster of guest speakers: loved ones eager to indict her for personal deficiencies; thinkers, dead and living, who have influenced her work. Her insomniac lecture prep frequently drifts into ancillary ideological quibbles that display an eidetic (and sometimes incredible) recall of the texts she’s read. Quotes rise up, unbidden, from the landfill of memory: The barrier between oneself and one’s knowledge of oneself is high indeed (James Baldwin); The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all (Joan Robinson). Her spiraling self-pity is continually in dialogue with an ambient guilt—or perhaps the anticipated roar of a Twitter mob. In the midst of lamenting that she and her family have been sent “into the proverbial street,” a censorious voice counters:
Not, of course, in the way that people less fortunate than you get sent into the actual street, which is a lot of people, around the world and in your own community, so many people in situations so much worse than yours.
Abby suspects that misogyny lurked behind her tenure denial—the all-male committee concluded that her book was “derivative”—and at one point her house is transformed into a Lewis Carroll–esque courtroom, with Keynes serving as her attorney. The charge of unoriginality was, Keynes argues, “a tawdry effort by the plaintiff’s embittered colleagues to dress up their prejudice as rational assessment.”
Just as clarity appears within reach, however, Keynes dons a black robe and white barrister wig. He has resigned his role as lawyer and serves now as judge, reading a scathing caricature of her own paltry complaint. “Your position, if I may restate it for the record, is that you are entirely the victim in this situation?” he bellows. “That you are personally not bound by your institution’s metrics and expectations for tenure, for example, simply because you find them archaic?”
This accusation escalates into a wider indictment (again, Keynes’s voice becomes Abby’s own), concluding that there is something fundamentally wrong with the plaintiff, that she was unprepared for life from the jump, that all her problems have stemmed from her inability to find a convincing social persona that can express the multitudes within her:
Because at the end of the day, you are uniquely ill-equipped to convey to the world what you care about or what you want to say…. You are capable of being many selves but the moment you commit to one, it becomes an imposter, a dummy to dress up and roll out into the world in your place. And you hate the dummy, hate everything it says, even though it only says what you give it to say, and even though the words you give it to say are the best you can come up with.
Her anxiety about the impending lecture seems to have sparked a larger crisis about what Erving Goffman called “the presentation of self in everyday life.” Even the writerly voice she adopted in her book—“a ‘self’ in language”—was, Keynes concludes, a false manifestation. Like many introverts, Abby is entirely herself only in her own mind, where she is free to rehearse and revise potential scripts without an external audience. Her stream of consciousness is dialogic, “a discussion with oneself,” as Bakhtin once described the soliloquy, and it’s precisely the closed circuit—the fact that we readers are not its intended audience but its accidental auditors—that allows for this raw (and recognizable) intimacy. Isn’t this what we all do within the humid, rackety chambers of our most private moments? We argue with ourselves and our projections. We serve as both the prosecution and the defense. We lecture ourselves in digressive tirades that slip, instinctively, into the second person, dispelling the fragile illusion of the indivisible “I.”
The mind is, of course, the house in which each person is fated to live (“the four walls of your skull,” as Keynes puts it). But such structures are always porous. At one point, standing with Keynes in her imaginary kitchen, Abby recalls how she and Ed discovered, during a recent renovation, layers lurking beneath the surface—old wallpaper, ancient circuit boxes, evidence of all the people who had lived there before. The house of the mind is similarly composed of so much inherited hardware: half-remembered quotes, values absorbed in childhood, political ideologies that intrude on private recollections—not to mention the vast, unmarked territory of the unconscious. The mind may be the only true utopia, but it is not, in any sense of the term, private property. Even when we are lost in our thoughts, we’re never really alone.
Riker is fairly new to the writing of novels but he’s a longtime student of the form. He has worked as associate director at Dalkey Archive Press and cofounded Dorothy, a feminist press, with his wife, the writer Danielle Dutton.1 His first book, Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return (2018), was a picaresque road novel about metempsychosis, chronicling the tales of a dead man who is reincarnated in a variety of different bodies—young and old, male and female, Black and white. (It was a modern retelling of the 1836 social satire Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself by Robert Montgomery Bird.2) More than one critic called the novel Whitmanesque, sensing in its premise a formal allegory about the novelist’s ability to get inside the heads of characters who differ from himself, though in practice the device was more theoretical than illustrative. Unlike Bird’s narrator, who experiences the perspective of the person he possesses, Riker’s hero retains his own consciousness throughout each transmigration and has no access to his hosts’ thoughts.
In interviews, Riker confessed some uneasiness about the logistics of inhabiting other minds and denied that his novel was an attempt to “sing America.” (“America,” he said, “is a fairly complicated place.”) The Guest Lecture, his second novel, also involves an imaginative leap—across gender and profession—in its chosen protagonist, though it’s a credit to Riker’s virtuosity that I forgot this almost immediately. Abby is among the most convincing female narrators written by a man, largely because of how capacious she is, and how many voices she harbors within herself. In a sense, the novel perfectly inverts the premise of Riker’s first book: while Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return followed a first-person narrator who speaks in one voice throughout his promiscuous body-snatching, The Guest Lecture evokes a choir within a single, immobile person.
Dialoguing with oneself is an attempt to achieve objectivity, and it’s clear that Abby is seeking in Keynes’s ideas more expansive insights into the questions that have haunted her life: When do risks pay off and when are they foolish? What does it mean to plan for the future? Is it possible, in this political and ecological climate, to sustain any kind of hope?
As the night unfolds, these questions take her deeper and deeper into the past. For dozens of pages at a time, Keynes disappears, the mnemonic house dissolves, and the story becomes immersed in the panorama of memory. She revisits conversations with her mentor, Maggie, a college professor who got her hooked on feminist economics—or perhaps the subject was merely a gateway to the person. (“That class was about Maggie,” she realizes. “It was Maggie 101.”) She spends a long time recalling her college friendship with Evelyn, a drummer who introduced her to experimental music and whom she admired for her free-spirited capacity to improvise. There’s a moment in Mrs. Dalloway when Clarissa berates herself for confusing Miss Kilman with “the idea of her,” but Abby’s experience suggests that there’s no escape from such errors. All of her beliefs and intellectual preoccupations, she realizes, were inspired by various people—“people with purpose, or with what looked to me like purpose, providing models of how to meaningfully exist in this world.”
Even her attraction to Keynes, her intellectual hero, owes less to his economic theories than to his personal qualities. Abby is the kind of economist fond of pointing out that the discipline was once a branch of moral philosophy, and her lecture’s potted biography of Keynes makes ample use of his Bloomsbury connections—his friendships with Virginia Woolf and Bertrand Russell. The underlying point of her talk is that economics is not a science but a form of rhetoric. Rhetoric gets a bad name, she acknowledges, thanks to Plato, who called it “the art of clever speeches.” But its value is that it acknowledges that truth itself is dialogic, “specific to each situation and determined through language and argument rather than inherited from the gods.” Keynes’s essay about the future was not delivering truths from on high. It was “a form of utopian storytelling,” a thought experiment that conjured, through the enchantment of narrative, a counterargument to the dreary realities of his time.
Utopia, Abby recalls, literally means “no-place.” The usefulness of utopian ideas lies not in their accuracy—their fidelity to reality—but in their capacity to provide imaginative alternatives:
Its real value—the real value of any utopia—is that it doesn’t exist. It’s not a model of how everything should be; it’s an alternative to whatever reality you currently inhabit. The purpose of a utopia is to open your eyes to possibility, to allow yourself to see more clearly, by way of contrast, the society in which you live, the customs you’ve grown so accustomed to that they’ve come to seem inevitable. It’s not a proposition, even less a plan, but a viable reminder that everything you take to be “the world” could be, if we wanted it to be, very different.
It’s a passage, like many in this novel, that is dense with double meaning. Projection, after all, is also what novelists do, building stage sets to dramatize intellectual tensions, splintering their psyche into different characters, dreaming up landscapes that exist only in the nowhere-space of the imagination. At one point Abby considers incorporating into her speech a quote from Paul Ricoeur: “Part of the literary strategy of utopia is to aim at persuading the reader by the rhetorical means of fiction.”
I’m reluctant to use the phrase “novel of ideas,” aware of a not-so-distant time when the term was, to paraphrase Mary McCarthy, a tautology. But Riker’s novel undoubtedly falls into this category, and it’s interesting to consider how it both engages and subverts many of its alleged problems. More than once while reading The Guest Lecture, I thought of J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. Published in 2003, shortly before Coetzee won the Nobel Prize, the novel is largely composed of academic lectures given by the fictional titular novelist. It was not particularly well received: critics disparaged it as “a string of metaphysical pit stops” and suspected Coetzee of using his female protagonist to ventriloquize his own arguments “without taking full intellectual responsibility for it.”3 (It didn’t help that the topics of Elizabeth’s lectures—animal consciousness, the problem of evil—were those Coetzee had expounded on in his own public talks.)
Few critics seemed to realize that the novel was in fact satirizing the limitations of this kind of fiction—namely, its tendency to devolve into lecture. “Realism has never been comfortable with ideas,” the unnamed narrator declares in one of several metafictional intrusions that call attention to the novel’s constructedness. During a sex scene, when a woman’s knee slips under the man’s arm and folds into his armpit, the narrator interrupts again to question the purpose of this detail: “Does the mind by nature prefer sensations to ideas, the tangible to the abstract? Or is the folding of the woman’s knee just a mnemonic, from which will unfold the rest of the night?”
It’s an interesting word choice, “mnemonic.” Writers with philosophical or political interests, it suggests, are always in danger of reducing the rich texture of experience to so much cheap staging, turning characters into mouthpieces and details into mnemonics—semiotic keys designed to unlock the novel’s embedded concepts. This is presumably why the most intellectually engaged novelists today have receded into monophonic autobiography, collapsing their casts down to a single first-person narrator who is essentially identical to their author, thereby avoiding the risk of creating characters who function like ideological puppets. (Some two decades later, one wonders whether Coetzee might have preempted his detractors by giving his protagonist his own gender and name.)
At times, this impatience with the contrivances of fiction rises to a kind of eschatological idealism, a longing for the day when the novel will become synonymous with pure consciousness, leaving behind the body and those worldly possessions in which readers can no longer put their faith. Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy (2015–2018) was praised for promising “a future for the novel in which we might no longer need characters and, by extension, all of their crap.”4 In Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers (2015), the narrator, holed up in a hotel room, promises that he won’t be subjecting us to the tedium of set design. “There’s nothing worse than description: hotel room prose. No, characterization is worse. No, dialogue is.”
Riker (thankfully) spares us hotel room prose, but he also discovers an imaginative means of reconciling realism to ideas. Instead of scrubbing his novel of characters, dialogue, and detail—or calling attention to their artifice through metafictional bulletins—he outsources the world-building to his protagonist. It is Abby, after all, who constructs the mnemonic house, piece by piece, with the poetic verve of a novelist. It is she who fractures her voice into multiple characters and sets them in dialogue with one another. The reader’s fear that these scenes conceal a rhetorical function, that they are mere morality plays, is defused by the fact that they plainly are—but the person giving and seeking counsel is Abby herself.
She is the one standing outside her life, trawling its scenes for themes, using people as models of ideologies, searching for sermons under every decorative stone. The extent to which her indiscriminate free association of ideas, people, and things feels more or less recognizable would seem to suggest that everything contemporary readers find suspicious in novels is actually happening all the time—in the intrinsically didactic life of the mind. The inner novelist in each of us has no trouble synthesizing the tangible and the abstract into vibrant intellectual dramas. This is practically all that the mind of a thinking person does.
Riker shows his hand only once, in that italicized opening paragraph of stage direction, breaking the fourth wall before the fourth wall (or any wall, for that matter) has been constructed. But it’s nevertheless this other mind lurking behind the scenes—one that is different enough from its narrator to suggest dramatic irony—that cautions the reader against taking Abby’s conclusions at face value. She believes that this long, dark night of the soul is a “final accounting,” and anticipates that it will be a turning point in her life:
I will worry less about my own stability and security, worry less about Ali, who is amazing and competent. I will treat myself better, and by extension will treat others better. I will have a brave mind. Keynes was never a parent. He looked for courage in other places, found generosity in thinking. It’s what he came to thinking for. To solve problems but also to live in the generosity of the mind and the imagination. That is not economics or scholarship, that is just being a thinking person in the world.
Anyone who has tried to house their entire life within the confines of a form—an idea, a theory—knows all too well the futility of the task. Just as economic theories break down in the dynamics of the real market, and the mind’s polyphonic potential narrows to a single spoken voice, so the purity of any abstract concept becomes brittle and untenable when imposed upon the complexity of waking life. This is, in the end, the fundamental paradox of being “a thinking person in the world.” If The Guest Lecture is trying to persuade us of anything, it is not any particular idea but rather the value of the interior drama itself—and the heroic efforts required of those who are willing to attend to it.
Since last year Dorothy has been in a distribution partnership with New York Review Books. ↩
Reissued by New York Review Books in 2008, with an introduction by Christopher Looby. ↩
Heidi Julavits, “Choose Your Own Rachel Cusk,” New York, March 6, 2017. ↩