Sparta (Robinson)

Roxana Robinson, 2013
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
400 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780374267704

Giving voice to one of the most crucial issues of our time, the acclaimed novelist Roxana Robinson has created a portrait of the walking wounded among America’s veterans—soldiers who have no physical scars but who cannot overcome the emotional traumas of Operation Iraqi Freedom and its otherworldly horrors.

In Sparta, Conrad Farrell’s family has no military heritage, but as a classics major at Williams College, Conrad is drawn to the Marine Corps ethic: “Semper Fidelis” came straight from the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta, where every citizen doubled as a full-time soldier. After college, Conrad joins the Marines and is deployed to Iraq at the height of U.S. attempts to democratize a nation overrun by brutal factions.

Returning home to New York’s Westchester County after four years of honorable service, Conrad appears to be in perfect shape: he hasn’t been shot, he was never wounded by an IED, and he sticks to a tough workout routine. As strong as he is, it’s soon apparent that the transition from war to peace may destroy him.

As he attempts to reconnect with the people and places he once loved, he is haunted by psychological demons. The survival tactics that brought him home safely are now his worst enemy, winding his psyche into a taut knot of fear and guilt. Picturing dangers and destruction at every turn while questioning the value of his mission in Iraq, he tries to navigate a homeland that no longer feels like home to him.

He longs for help—from his family, his girlfriend, his fellow troops, the VA—but each attempt to reach out ends disastrously. Capturing the nuances of the unique estrangement that modern soldiers face as they attempt to rejoin the society they’ve fought for, Sparta is a powerful testament to the moral consequences of war, for civilians and soldiers alike. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
Where—Pine Mountain, Kentucky, USA
Raised—New Hope, Pennsylvania
Education—B.A., University of Michigan
Currently—lives in New York City

Roxana Robinson is an American novelist and biographer whose fiction explores the complexity of familial bonds and fault lines. Her 2013 novel, Sparta, was published to wide acclaim, and her 2008 novel, Cost, was named one of the Five Best Novels of the Year by the Washington Post. She is also the author of Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life, and has written widely on American art and issues pertaining to ecology and the environment.

Life and Work
Robinson was born in Pine Mountain, Kentucky, and raised in New Hope, Pennsylvania, the child of educators and the great-great-granddaughter of social reformer Henry Ward Beecher. She graduated from Buckingham Friends School, in Lahaska, and from The Shipley School, in Bryn Mawr. She studied writing at Bennington College with Bernard Malamud and received a B.A. degree in English Literature from the University of Michigan. She worked in the American painting department at Sotheby's and wrote about American art until she began to successfully publish short fiction in the 1980s.

Equally skilled in both long and short form fiction, Robinson is the author of several novels, three story collections and a biography. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, Atlantic, and Best American Short Stories, and been widely anthologized and broadcast on National Public Radio. Four of her works have been chosen as Notable Books of the Year by the New York Times, and Cost won the Maine Fiction Award and was long-listed for the Dublin Impac Prize for Fiction. She was named a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library, and currently serves on the board of PEN American Center and the Authors Guild. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, and the Guggenheim Foundation.

Robinson has taught at Wesleyan University, the University of Houston and at the New School. Since 1997, she has taught at the Wesleyan Writers’ Conference, and is currently teaching in the Hunter College MFA Program.

Robinson is also a biographer and scholar of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American art. Her articles have appeared in Arts, ARTnews, and Art & Antiques, as well as in exhibition catalogues for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Katonah Museum of Art and others. Her biography of Georgia O'Keeffe was deemed by Calvin Tomkins, of The New Yorker, "without question the best book written about O'Keeffe,” and named a New York Times Notable Book. Robinson lectures frequently on Georgia O'Keeffe, and appeared in the BBC documentary on the artist.

She reviews books for the New York Times and Washington Post, and her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Harper's, Vogue, Real Simple, and More. She has also written about travel for the New York Times, Travel and Leisure, and elsewhere.

Robinson is passionate about environmental concerns, explored in her novel Sweetwater, and has published numerous op-eds in the Boston Globe, International Herald Tribune, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. She has also been a guest blogger for the National Resource Defense Council. She also writes about gardening for publications such as House and Garden, Horticulture, and Fine Gardening. Her garden is listed in the Garden Conservancy Open Days, and has been written about in the New York Times, House and Garden, Traditional Homes, Atlantic, and Gardens Illustrated. She serves on the council of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, which promotes the conservation of natural places statewide.

She lives in New York, Maine and Connecticut with her husband. Her daughter is a painter whose work appeared on both the hardcover and paperback editions of Cost.

Critical Reception
Hailed as “one of our best writers” by Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post, and “John Cheever’s heir apparent” by the New York Times Book Review, Robinson has also been said, by Time, to be in the “august company” of Edith Wharton, Louis Auchincloss and Henry James.

With Cost, Robinson moved into a larger arena, and, as critic Ron Charles of the Washington Post has said, she “has crept into corners of human experience [that] each of us is terrified to approach ... the implacable tragedies that shred our sense of how the world should work.” In a New York Times interview on the extensive research she did, Robinson said, “Cost has a larger reach than my previous books, both in terms of emotional risk and experience. Alzheimer's and heroin addiction are things I found both very threatening and compelling. They seemed like things I needed to explore."

Spotlighted for her short fiction in the New York Times Book Review, Robinson compared writing a story to

like doing a cliff dive, the kind that only works when the wave hits just right. You stand on top, poised and fearful, looking at what lies below: you must start your dive when the wave has withdrawn, and there's nothing beneath you but sand and stone. You take a deep breath and throw yourself over, hoping that, by the time you hit, the wave will be back, wild and churning, and full of boiling energy. It's kind of terrifying. It's unbelievably fun.

Robinson has written introductions to The Best Early Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, A Matter of Prejudice and Other Stories by Kate Chopin, and a forthcoming edition of the English novelist Elizabeth Taylor's A Game of Hide and Seek. She edited and wrote the introduction to The New York Stories of Edith Wharton, published by NYRB Classics, as well the introduction to Wharton’s The Old Maid: The Fifties, published by Modern Library Classics. Robinson was also a guest on the recent WAMC/Northeast Public Radio program “American Icons,” on which she discussed House of Mirth. She is also on the Advisory Council at The Mount, Wharton’s historic home in Lenox, Massachusetts.

Commenting on her affinity with Wharton, Robinson notes,

Wharton and I come from similar backgrounds. I grew up with the rules that governed her: emotions were to be strictly controlled, pain was not to be acknowledged, and the rules of decorum were to be obeyed. I’ve always been fascinated by her unblinking exegesis of all this, the way you are when someone breaks the rules, the way you are when you read something and think, “What? Are you allowed to write about this?” Wharton wrote about her world in a way that made it possible for me – and for all of us who come after her—to go into our own worlds still further, and to tease out the innermost reaches of pain and passion from the decorous woven fabric of our lives.

Her work is increasingly used for teaching purposes, and the University of Connecticut has taught a course called, “The Works of Roxana Robinson.”A. (From Wikipedia. Retrieved 7/26/2013.)

Book Reviews
Pardon the pun, but Roxana Robinson's new novel, Sparta, which takes us deep inside the troubled head of a Marine returning from four years of active duty in Iraq, really is a tour de force.... Sparta is a novel with a mission—which in a lesser writer's hands could spell its doom. But Robinson manages to convey the difficulties of a warrior returning to society and dramatize how we fail our veterans without reducing her story to a polemic. She pulls this off by expertly deploying three literary weapons: emotional insight, moral nuance and intellectual depth.
Heller McAlpin - Washington Post

Both lyrical and unsentimental, richly honest and humane.
Wall Street Journal

An intelligent, sensitive analyst of family life.
Chicago Tribune

[After] four years of service in Iraq, [Conrad Farrell] finds coming back to his family in Westchester, N.Y., a disorienting experience.... Robinson brings us deep inside Conrad’s soul, and inside the suffocating despair and frustration that can stalk soldiers even when they are ostensibly out of harm’s way. By letting the reader live in Conrad’s skin, Robinson creates a moving chronicle of how we fail our returning troops.
Publishers Weekly

A Marine commander returns home from Iraq badly shaken in this novel...[and] slowly slips off the rails.... Robinson has convincingly summarized the wartime experience, but only rarely does it feel like she's made a full person out of Conrad, who has the distant feel of an Everyvet.... As Conrad's decline accelerates, Robinson hurries the pace of the closing chapters.... A well-intentioned but flawed exploration of an underdiscussed topic.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Explore the novel’s title. How does the description of Spartan life in chapter 4 compare to the life of a U.S. soldier in the twenty-first century? Why was Conrad drawn to classicism? Did he experience any of those ideals as a modern American warrior?

2. If you were in Claire’s position, how would you respond to Conrad’s homecoming? Ultimately, what does he need from her, and from all his loved ones? What makes it hard for him get his needs met without turning people away?

3. What are some of the differences between Marshall’s and Lydia’s approaches to their children? Despite her career as a successful therapist, why is Lydia mystified by Conrad’s symptoms, culminating in chapter 24, when she rejects his rage by telling him, “I can’t stand this. Con, you have to do something about this”?

4. How did Ali change Conrad’s perspective on privilege and political struggles? What common fears did they share?

5. As Conrad observes the dramatic changes in Go-Go’s value system, what does he discover about the way he and his friends have changed since graduation? Are we our true selves during our college years, or is that just an experimental phase? Do the demands of adulthood transform us into our true selves?

6. From chapter 5, where the factions of Fallujah are explained, what clarity did you gain? How did an American soldier’s duties in Iraq compare to those of armed forces in Vietnam and Korea?

7. While being with Jenny, what does Conrad discover about growing older and the changes that took place while he was away? As he walks familiar ground in Katonah and Manhattan, what has changed within him? What did his military service cost him?

8. What does Conrad’s heartrending experience with the VA and his session with Dr. Chandler reveal about the high suicide rates among U.S. soldiers and veterans? What would it take to fully fund psychiatric care in the military and rank it alongside weapons and armor in importance?

9. As Conrad remembers Carleton, Olivera, Anderson, and others, what emotions does he experience beyond guilt? How does his network of survivors cope with the seemingly trivial, naive nature of civilian life?

10. Everyone in Conrad’s world seems to have a purpose tied to meaningful work. Despite his damaged psyche, Conrad tries to find a new mission, enrolling in an economics class and forcing himself through the GMAT. How did his perception of a meaningful life radically change whenhe enlisted?

11. What truths are finally spoken at the end of chapter 24? How does the Farrells’ response to trauma compare to your family’s? Throughout the novel, Conrad told himself that he must keep certain truths from his family. Was he right?

12. What makes Conrad’s relationship with Ollie special? What is Ollie able to see and do that the other family members—and the VA clinician—can’t?

13. In what ways can fiction sometimes capture reality better than a history book? How did Conrad’s story affect your understanding of the challenges faced by veterans and the aftermath of modern warfare?

14. What themes of healing are woven throughout this and other fiction you’ve read by Roxana Robinson? What is both unique and universal about Conrad’s experience?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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