Black Cat
Black Cat
Black Cat

The Guest Lecture

by Martin Riker

With “a voice as clear, sincere, and wry as any I’ve read in current American fiction” (Joshua Cohen), Martin Riker’s poignant and startlingly original novel asks how to foster a brave mind in anxious times, following a newly jobless academic rehearsing a speech on John Maynard Keynes for a surprising audience

  • Imprint Black Cat
  • Page Count 256
  • Publication Date January 24, 2023
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-6041-6
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $17.00
  • Imprint Black Cat
  • Publication Date January 24, 2023
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-6042-3
  • US List Price $17.00

In a hotel room in the middle of the night, Abby, a young feminist economist, lies awake next to her sleeping husband and daughter. Anxious that she is grossly underprepared for a talk she is presenting tomorrow on optimism and John Maynard Keynes, she has resolved to practice by using an ancient rhetorical method of assigning parts of her speech to different rooms in her house and has brought along a comforting albeit imaginary companion to keep her on track—Keynes himself.

Yet as she wanders with increasing alarm through the rooms of her own consciousness, Abby finds herself straying from her prepared remarks on economic history, utopia, and Keynes’s pragmatic optimism. A lapsed optimist herself, she has been struggling under the burden of supporting a family in an increasingly hostile America after being denied tenure at the university where she teaches. Confronting her own future at a time of global darkness, Abby undertakes a quest through her memories to ideas hidden in the corners of her mind—a piecemeal intellectual history from Cicero to Lewis Carroll to Queen Latifah—as she asks what a better world would look like if we told our stories with more honest and more hopeful imaginations.

With warm intellect, playful curiosity, and an infectious voice, Martin Riker acutely animates the novel of ideas with a beating heart and turns one woman’s midnight crisis into the performance of a lifetime.

Tags Literary

Praise for The Guest Lecture:

An Indie Next Selection
Named a Best Book of the Year by NPR
Named a Most Anticipated Book by
The Millions, Bustle, and Powell’s

“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 . . . 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 . . . In the vein of Nicholson Baker, Riker is a noticer . . . In Riker’s hands, Abigail is good company.”—Dwight Garner, New York Times

“If you’ve ever spent a sleepless night worrying about your career, your family and the gross inequality of American life, then chances are you will love, or at least relate to, The Guest Lecture . . . A quirky second novel of breathtaking genius.”—Ann Levin, AP News

“It’s difficult to talk with Martin Riker and not feel hopeful . . . Talking with him, and reading his new book, The Guest Lecture, lit me up in thrilling ways about all the possibilities still alive—at least for books . . . Ebullient, lively, often very funny; Abby describes what’s most important to her in writing as ‘the life inside the language,’ and this whole book is so gleefully, wondrously full of that life.”—Lynn Steger Strong, Los Angeles Times

“Mesmerizing . . . The Guest Lecture is a novel of ideas and feelings, of feelings about ideas and ideas about feelings. If this lecture will be her final word on her subject, Abigail naturally wants to express everything. Living in ‘an era of overload’ can feel like a rush, and the book doesn’t deny us that. It bursts with philosophy, jokes, factoids, tense academic social dynamics and fragments of formative memory.”—Maggie Lange, Washington Post

“Chronicles the thoughts of a depressed economist named Abby over a single sleepless night as she lies in a hotel bed beside her husband, Ed, and daughter, Ali . . . The novel Riker has constructed around her nightlong monologue subtly puts her separation from the rest of existence into question . . . The novel itself is governed by a finely orchestrated sense of instability. Riker punctuates the chatty narration with abrupt bursts of self-castigation as Abby struggles to seize the reins of her runaway mind . . . [A] strange little novel of cosmopolitan solipsism.”—Nathan Goldman, New Yorker, “Page Turner”

The Guest Lecture dramatizes with rare vibrancy an economist’s preparation for a talk on John Maynard Keynes . . . 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 . . . [Riker] 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 . . . 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.”—Meghan O’Gieblyn, New York Review of Books

“The novel’s juggling act is in combining an affectionate depiction of Abigail’s neuroses with a contemplation of ideas, specifically those connected to Keynes’s economic theories, which it fascinatingly unpacks. Keynes’s humanistic optimism for the future of civilization serves as a challenge to Abigail’s habit of regret, and in the dialectic between them Mr. Riker skips among a multitude of issues, from Abigail’s trenchant commentary on sexism in academia to her wry memories of broken relationships.”—Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

“A campus novel without the campus, a novel of ideas about the failing infrastructures that used to support ideas, a confession of the academic soul that’s also a tragicomedy of the first-world political conscience: Riker’s novel is a dark, layered, yet somehow also buoyant reflection on how very damaged intellectual life can be.”—Nicholas Dames, Public Books

“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.”—Dan Kubis, Chicago Review of Books

“The hyperactive brain of an insomniac in a state of high anxiety is some kind of place to be, as Martin Riker demonstrates in The Guest Lecture. This ingenious novel captures the maelstrom inside the head of Abby, a feminist economist, who lies awake in a ‘dark hotel room somewhere in middle America’ with her husband, Ed, who’s ‘allergic to ambition,’ and her young daughter, Ali . . . Fans of Joshua Cohen’s The Netanyahus and other works that mix intellectual pyrotechnics with personal stories will savor this novel.”—Shelf Awareness (starred review)

“Formally innovative . . . The novel succeeds in interweaving an essayistic impulse with the vulnerabilities attendant on any dark night of the soul.”—New Yorker, “Briefly Noted”

“This year’s must-read academic novel . . . As much an indictment of mainstream economics as it explores what happens when one’s academic career goes off the rails.”—Joshua Kim, Inside Higher Ed

“[Abby’s] 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.”—Norah Piehl, Book Reporter

“Martin Riker’s The Guest Lecture is like Ducks, Newburyport meets The Good Place meets The Chair, which is to say it’s an incredible book that you need to read right now . . . what follows is a bunch of gleeful tangents, diversions, deep dives into Abby’s past, and one Alice-in-Wonderland-inspired fever dream of a courtroom scene. There’s something so delightfully playful about this novel, about its willingness to explore the corners of the mind and to follow the firing synapses of imagination . . . The Guest Lecture boldly asks: how can we hold hope for our tomorrow?”—Katie Yee, Literary Hub

“This propulsive, brainy novel spans just one sleepless night, as a wry academic prepares for her swan song: a lecture on the economist John Maynard Keynes. The Guest Lecture presents lots of ideas about feminist economics and the biography of a pre-WWII intellectual, but it’s also very, very funny. It’s a true gift to step inside the protagonist’s unusual, playful mind.”—Bustle

“With wry humor and true wisdom, Riker, co-founder and publisher of Dorothy, a Publishing Project, transforms one woman’s insomnia into an enchanting and playful exploration of literature, performance, and the life of the mind.”—The Millions

“Riker spins a brilliant and innovative exploration of modern economic history in the form of a late-night waking dream . . . Abby’s metaphysical wanderings swell to a scorching condemnation of modern life and an empathetic celebration of its meaningful moments. It’s a transporting, clever, and inspired work of fiction.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“On the eve of a guest lecture she’s set to deliver—to an audience whose identity is never fully revealed—economics professor Abby wrestles with thorny theoretical issues and a few problems closer to home . . . [A] unique novel of ideas. A thoughtful and thought-filled stroll down a life’s Memory Lane.”—Kirkus Reviews

“In this welcome addition to the academic-novel genre, highly relatable to those suffering from imposter syndrome, Riker challenges the trope that men can’t write successfully about women; Abigail’s voice feels authentic, and her ambiguity about choosing the academic life and the economics field, and balancing that with family life, calls to mind Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter (but with more humor). The dream section is also reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled.”—Library Journal

“Keynes himself declared that ‘words ought to be a little wild,’ and this clever, provocative novel, with its hard-wrought optimism, honors that call to disrupt.”—Booklist

The Guest Lecture is so funny and sad and smart about its sadness. Its topicality isn’t cheap, but deep and earned—our own—founded in the way thinking and feeling have been ceded to politics, often by those of us who think and feel the most. Martin Riker has written a major novel of bizarro feminism, language, love, family, money, and whatever the hell it means to own, or make, or be, a ‘property,’ in a voice as clear, sincere, and wry as any I’ve read in current American fiction.”—Joshua Cohen, author of The Netanyahus, winner of the Pulitzer Prize

“A wonderfully playful novel! The Guest Lecture follows a sleepless mind restlessly roving through major economic questions and inviting those questions into conversation with the everyday problems of inhabiting a house and a job and a life. It’s a fun read and an education, like the best of lectures.”—Eula Biss, author of Having and Being Had and On Immunity

“This funny, audacious and deliciously self-critical novel can be read as a fruitful attempt at fulfilling that old and beautiful dream of reuniting literature and life.”—Alejandro Zambra, author of Chilean Poet

“Rocking back and forth on a lectern made out of insomnia and darkness, brilliance and humor, Martin Riker gives us a gorgeous novel that turns the lecture inside out. Riddled with ghosts and stage-fright and love, everything it takes to give an idea breath is showing. As formally masterful as it is gutsy, The Guest Lecture is the spiel of a lifetime, a life’s work, a working life. If all lectures were like Riker’s, I’d plant myself in the very front row, dead center, and never go home.”—Sabrina Orah Mark, author of Wild Milk and the forthcoming Happily

The Guest Lecture is a funny and surprising novel about failure, economic history, the logic of memory, and what it means to care for one another at this terrifying moment in history. Abby’s dark night of the soul left me feeling something I had not felt in a long time—hope.”—Christine Smallwood, author of The Life of the Mind

“Marvelous, marvelous, marvelous. Martin’s The Guest Lecture is a memory palace of delight, a book of enchanting erudition that guides the reader to unexpected horizons and vistas. Each room (chapter) reveals an understanding of the rooms you have previously explored (read) and at the same time points us to corridors of further discovery. Martin Riker’s The Guest Lecture is a gift to the curious reader.”—Paul Yamazaki, City Lights Bookstore (San Francisco, CA)

“What a magnificent novel. The Guest Lecture is succinct in its execution, wise and generous in its intellectual offerings, creative and a little experimental but never belligerent. If you’re ever to summon an English economist into the rooms of your consciousness, let it be John Maynard Keynes, and may your guide be as good as Abby, Martin Riker’s heroic/anxious protagonist. The Guest Lecture is not only high entertainment; it’s a hell of a lot of fun. I’ll read it again before too long.”—Spencer Ruchti, Third Place Books (Lake Forest Park, WA)

The Guest Lecture is simply masterful. Touching, smart, original, the writing itself is incredible, a ton of other things, all of them amazing. Economics? John Maynard Keynes? No thanks. Except, YES! Absolutely yes to all of these things, because these things are who we are. What a human story, absolutely personal and singular and yet about all of us too.”—Mark Haber, Brazos Bookstore (Houston, TX)


Excerpted from The Guest Lecture © 2023 by Martin Riker. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Black Cat, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

Walk up to the house, which is my house, and therefore familiar and safe. A place to feel at ease, to the extent that I am ever at ease, to put my cares behind me as I face the front steps of my own house, mine and Ed’s and Ali’s, though they aren’t with me now, or waiting inside either—where should I put them? Someplace nice. Not here in the hotel. Out for ice cream? Why not. And I am alone feeling suddenly overwhelmed and underprepared as I climb the porch steps— one, two, three—having imagined all along I’d be swimming in confidence, but now full up with worry and nerves. Worried that worrying about nervousness will cause nervousness, all that stupid self-conscious stuff you let into your brain that takes over your mindspace and mucks up your mnemonic, derailing your already precariously teetering train of thought.

But no, you will focus. 

Picture the porch.

I’m up on it now and in fact I’m not alone because here waiting for me is a familiar face, the kind eyes, horsey features, white push-broom mustache: it’s Keynes. We haven’t officially met, but we’ve known each other all along, and he’s smiling, he’s happy to see me. “Abigail,” he says, “welcome home. I am Maynard. I was born in Cambridge in 1883 and died in Tilton in 1946. Between those dates I lived an extremely busy life filled with lots of interesting facts and anecdotes which you should feel free, my dear, to sprinkle around like pixie dust as we proceed through the rooms of your very nice house, assigning to each a portion of your speech, or talk, or whatever you’re calling it. But dust is a little dry”—he coughs—“even pixie dust is a little dry, and right off you won’t want to fill up the air with it. You need a simple introduction, I think.” He gives a worried grandpa look. “Have you considered where you might start?”

I take his arm and together we push open the front door. “Why, of course!” he smiles. “We shall start in the living room.”

Picture the living room.

Big, airy, soft gray. Rectangular blue coffee table with the glossy finish that always reminds me of pudding, like its surface is coated with smooth blue pudding. Green couch, a little ratty with wear. Big plants on the floor, smaller plants on the bookshelves. Disheveled shelves, poorly organized, under the stained-glass windows. One of each—a window, a bookshelf—on either side of the fireplace. Utterly derelict fireplace, cobwebs in the wire netting, why have we never cleaned the fireplace? Impressive mantel, though. Broad and white and shelfy, like a glacier. Like the edge of an ancient glacier inching its way into the living room. The mantel clutter-free except for that urn Robert gave us as a wedding gift, tucked back there on the right-hand side. Brown speckled urn, little Grecian handles, to someday store our ashes, joked Ed when we opened the box. Which was kind of a sweet thing to say, if you think about it.

“We’re in the living room?” asks Keynes. 

We’re in the living room.

“So start your speech!”

Thanks for inviting me, it’s a pleasure to be here, and:

In 1930, with the whole world on the verge of the economic disaster that here in the U.S. we called the Great Depression but which in England they called the Great Slump, a name I’ve always thought had a playful ring to it—slump—though obviously nothing about that situation was playful and my god I am rambling already.

In 1930, with the whole world on the verge of the Great Depression, which in England they called the Great Slump, the British economist John Maynard Keynes, by that time already well known, though not as spectacularly famous as he would eventually become, penned a short article titled “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” in which he made certain specific predictions about future economic growth. He predicted there would be a lot of it. Keynes had no children of his own, let alone any grandchildren, but his message was really to all the fear-stricken people of England on the cusp of their Great Slump, and his message was: You don’t need to worry so much.

Of course, when an economist tells you not to worry, you might worry all the more. An economist’s “don’t worry” usually means something bloodlessly calculated, like “worrying will increase the inclination to hoard currency and decrease spending on consumer goods.” Keynes worried about those things, too. But he was before all else a humanist, an old-school liberal pragmatist, who believed in the importance of a stable monetary policy for improving the standard of living, but who condemned the love of money for its own sake as a somewhat disgusting morbidity. When he proposed that people not worry, it wasn’t to paper over the inequities of a system by which the rich come to control an ever-increasing percentage of the aggregate wealth while the poor are systematically disenfranchised. He was saying that he really didn’t think worrying was the right thing to do.

And people were very worried, then. In that sense, it was not so different from today. The reasons for worry may have been a little different: there was vast economic inequality and rampant nationalism, but no global environmental crisis, at least not that anyone was paying attention to. But the amount of worry was about the same, and the various types of worry as well. There was the pessimism of the revolutionaries, as Keynes called it, the worry of those who thought the world so doomed that the only hope was to turn everything upside down. Then there was the pessimism of the reactionaries, those who thought the world so doomed that any sort of change at all would send civilization reeling into the abyss. Keynes’s reply to both was that actually, in the larger scheme of things, if you stepped back a little and looked at history, at where we’ve come from and how greatly things have changed, not just in the previous couple of years but over the previous centuries, at the incredible things humans are capable of and the incredible things we have actually done, then you would see a world on track to great prosperity. Think how exponentially the standard of living had improved for the average person over just a few hundred years. And weren’t the next hundred years likely to see even greater improvements?

And so in this article, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” written on the cusp of the worst economic slump of modern times, Keynes predicts that over the following century, owing to advances in technology and accumulated capital, the problems of poverty and hunger, which he calls the economic problem, by which he means the struggle of humans to survive, to feed ourselves and clothe ourselves—all these sorts of problems, he says, will be permanently solved. Everyone will have more than they need, and will no longer have to work so much, at which point we will all come to realize that the economic problem, which humans have always assumed was our number one problem—the reason we spend large chunks of our lives at jobs we often dislike or even despise—we’ll see that this problem is not our ultimate problem at all. No longer struggling merely to get by, finding ourselves instead with time on our hands, we will at long last recognize humanity’s true dilemma, its permanent problem, which is—

Ali turns—wakes? No, snugs into the covers. Was I mumbling? I often do and don’t realize, catch myself while walking down the street. But I think I’d notice my mumbling in a room as quiet as this. In the dark stillness of a room I can’t see but know is still out there, all around me, the carpeting I don’t want to set anything down on and the shellacked furniture much uglier than ours. If I can hear Ed breathing, certainly I would hear my own mumbling. And Ali’s breathing, little soft puffs. What time is it, anyway? Don’t check, you’ll wake her.

Light sleeper like her mom. Late. Early. The least you can give her is sleep. The very least a mother can do. Someday, daughter, all this insomnia will be yours (imaginary wide-sweeping arm gesture). Until then, I will do everything in my power to guard your quiet. I will lie still as a mummy. A mommy mummy. British people call their mothers mummy. Keynes. Ali. Ed. I will keep my busy thoughts trapped in the dungeon of my overactive imagination, where no one else will be made to suffer them.

“No one but us!” Keynes quips. 

Where was I?

“The living room. Coffee table, bookshelves, urn. You had described what I meant by the economic problem and had me declaring that humanity’s true dilemma, its permanent problem, is—”

What to do with all our free time. 

“And we are back.”