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. 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 as she asks what a better world would look like if we told our stories with more honest and more hopeful imaginations.
The solitary self is neither as trapped as it is in Castro’s novel nor as transcendent as it is in The Mezzanine ... The Guest Lecture situates the mind in relation to the world using a clever and surprisingly effective conceit ... 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 ... Moments are believable but didactic, disrupting the vividly peripatetic flow of thought with the clumsiness of cliché. The Guest Lecture is far more compelling when it addresses the chaos of the outside world through the more intimate texture of Abby’s anxiety ... A strange little novel of cosmopolitan solipsism.
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 ... The Guest Lecture evokes a choir within a single, immobile person ... Dense with double meaning ... 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 Guest Lecture is a novel of ideas and feelings, of feelings about ideas and ideas about feelings ... It bursts with philosophy, jokes, factoids, tense academic social dynamics and fragments of formative memory ... Riker makes a credible critique of academia’s priorities ... The Guest Lecture analyzes how people live with their ideas, particularly when the world tells them those ideas are misguided. Defending personal philosophy in the face of rejection is always difficult, especially when the personal philosophy is optimism. A breathless, night-before-the-big-day cram feels like an ideal form for this expression. The book carries the exhaustive feeling that it’s captured everything the protagonist wanted to say. It doesn’t attempt the great unmastered art form of the age, to leave things out. A last hurrah shouldn’t skip any final word.