Class War: Roxana Robinson’s Sparta

Sparta CoverSeveral good books about the contemporary wars have been written by graduates of an ingenious program that opens up United States Marine Corps Officer Candidate School to rising college seniors, with no obligation for candidates to serve even after they graduate from college. Most do, though, and so the open-armed, non-binding invitation has reaped the Marines a bounty of smart, literary-minded young men from elite colleges who desire a healthy helping of “Semper-Fi Do-or-Die” before getting on with their lives. Among the books written by such men are the memoirs Dust to Dust by Vassar grad Benjamin Busch, Joker One by Princeton grad Donovan Campbell, and One Bullet Away by Dartmouth grad Nathaniel Fink. Coming soon is Redeployment, a collection of short stories by Phil Klay, another Dartmouth grad.

Speaking as a UC-Berkeley grad who went to Army OCS to become an infantry officer, I can kind of relate.

Also taking note of this phenomenon is Sparta, a novel by civilian author Roxana Robinson. Her protagonist is Conrad Farrell, a Williams College graduate from a comfy Westchester County, New York, far-suburban home, the kind whose dirt-road remoteness signals privilege, not poverty. Conrad’s decision to attend Marine OCS shocks and dismays his family and girlfriend. Now back from two savage tours in Iraq and out of the service, he begins a slow but steady deterioration from the ravages of post-traumatic stress.

It’s not a pretty tale, and it’s not told in a pretty, artful way. Sparta is sort of an anti-The Yellow Birds. It relates a similar tale of downward decline, but with none of The Yellow Birds’ lyrical flights (no pun intended) or near as much plot. Episodes unfold schematically: first, impulsive and reckless anger, then apathy and lack of focus, then withdrawal and denial, next headaches and insomnia. Flashbacks and erectile dysfunction. A futile stab at counseling. Alcohol abuse and self-medication. Suicidal thoughts, then suicidal gestures. When Conrad hears a loud bang, you know he’s going to duck. When a car veers too close while he’s driving, you know he’s going to panic. Conrad’s behavior is so out of kilter that it is hard to believe his girlfriend stays with him for a minute, let alone a year. It’s difficult to imagine him as an effective officer, or a cheerful, intelligent guy before he joined. The story is told almost entirely through Conrad’s eyes, but there’s so much we don’t understand. We’re left wondering, for example, why he got out of the Marines, since he has no plan for the future and misses his men so much. Why not get a job to keep busy? Date or chase girls? His depression socks in before he even knows he’s depressed, which might be the nature of such things, but his aimlessness makes him seem more like a goofy man-child than a focused adult. And because we aren’t allowed to eavesdrop on the other characters’ conversations and thoughts, we lose not just their perspectives on Conrad, but a fuller rendering of the angst those close to him must have suffered while hoping that he would once more be OK.

For all that Sparta’s darn near impossible to put down. Because Robinson doesn’t waste a word describing Conrad’s quick step toward self-destruction, Sparta reads very quickly. The  prose style is very direct—I can’t imagine a novel that begins as many sentences with “He,” as in the following passage describing Conrad in the process of bolo-ing the GMAT:

He was screwing it up. It was getting worse. He couldn’t pound the little things into any kind of sense.  It was getting worse, and the worse he felt, the worse he did. He was in a long panicked slide backward. He could feel himself his going and couldn’t stop himself.

Conrad’s upper-crust stiffness combined with the USMC suck-it-up ethos leaves him not strong but emotionally brittle, and Robinson describes this toxic psychic predicament shrewdly in short, sharp strokes. The most extended descriptions of anything are of the habits and habitats of Conrad’s liberal East Coast native milieu. The references to GMATs, Volvos, maids, and commuter trains remind us that Robinson is not telling a general story about all damaged veterans, but a particular one about a member of a class whose disdain for the war and the military seems based as much on taste and lifestyle as politics. Conrad’s parents care about him, but they take little pride for his service, understandable given his downward spiral, but they also seem to lack the warmth, curiosity, empathy, or other means, to include vocabulary and courage, to connect with him. They are good people in their way, but they are at a loss, and their scorn for soldiering contributes to Conrad’s funk and may even be the cause of it. It’s hard not to think that one thing that really eats at Conrad—in addition to everything else–is his inability to admit that his decision to join the Marines was an act of class betrayal, a big huge self-inflicted mistake, that his parents were right, and that he had every reason to know better.

Roxana Robinson, Sparta. Picador, 2014.

5 thoughts on “Class War: Roxana Robinson’s Sparta”

  1. Hey Pete! Wanted to send a post-ALA hello–and get your thoughts on a certain aspect of Sparta while I’m at it :P.

    I’m only about halfway through the book, so maybe Robinson does this at other points I haven’t gotten to yet, but I find it quite strange that the novel shifts into Conrad’s mother’s p.o.v. for a chapter or so and then (at least thus far) doesn’t do any other shifting away from Conrad’s perspective.

    I’ve been trying to make sense of this move, and the only thing I can come up with isn’t very satisfying. It seems like…maybe the author couldn’t think of any other way to humanize a character who might otherwise seem cold and unsympathetic? That’s not my personal reading of Lydia, but in this section Robinson goes to great lengths to “justify” Lydia’s opposition to Conrad’s chosen vocation and her inability to understand the appeal that military service has for him. So much so that at times, I couldn’t help but feeling like the explanation was a little *too* textbook “raised in the aftermath of the Vietnam debacle.”

    Any thoughts on this p.o.v. switch? Am I over-simplifying? I just really felt as though Robinson was attempting to head-off the reader’s likely negative feelings toward a character who may come off as not all that likeable due to her (to borrow your phrase :P) “upper-crust” sensibilities.

    On a different note, you said Conrad’s parents possess a “scorn for soldiering,” and maybe that’s to come, but I haven’t yet gotten the impression of *scorn.* Really, I have very little impression of Marshall, but Lydia seems more bewildered by the pull of service on the individual, by the desire to shed the role of civilian and take up the entirely different life of a soldier. Yes/no/maybe so? 🙂

    1. Hi Ashley, great to hear from you. I’ve been meaning to write about New Orleans in the blog and to all the folks we hung out with there at the ALA War and Lit Conference, but it’s been busy here. The brief interlude in Sparta where the story is told from Lydia’s POV seemed unsustained and unintegrated to me. I wish there had been more efforts to triangulate Conrad from multiple perspectives, but instead we only get sporadic lurches at doing so in what is an express train recounting of Conrad’s demise. Perhaps Robinson could better inhabit Lydia’s POV than Conrad’s; the scene where Lydia wonders at Marshall’s sympathy for Conrad joining the Marines is very effective IMO–it’s more nuanced than most of the peeks we get inside Conrad’s head. But we get so little of such things.

      Lydia may not have scorned the military, but she wasn’t seduced by any of its charms and mysterious allure either. Nor was she proud of Conrad’s service–no yellow ribbons or USMC bumper stickers for her–she seemed to regard it as an ugly family secret. A scene where she spoke about her feelings regarding her son’s military service with friends or a sister or brother would have been nice to help us figure out these things better.

      Another reader commented that she thought the book seemed unevenly edited–by which I think she meant that the pacing of the book varied markedly from section to section. Do you feel the same?


      1. Hey Pete. I just finished the book today, so now I feel I can give it a fairer assessment.

        Leaving aside the fact that Lydia is a therapist (refer him to a colleague, woman!), I have a bit of difficulty knowing what to do with *any* of these characters. By 2006, U.S. culture has been pretty thoroughly saturated with images and narratives of the PTSD-afflicted Vietnam vet. So how could Claire have been living the cultured life she’s living and not recognize Con’s nightmares-followed-by-outbursts as likely a symptom of post-traumatic stress? How does Jenny get her boyfriend to write Conrad an illegal Rx for Ambien, but not think that maybe he’s not sleeping because of PTSD? At the end of the book, Ollie says he did research and that’s how he knows about what Conrad is going through, and all I kept thinking was, “You had to *research* this?! Watch a movie! Read a book!”

        I don’t know if this above even relates to my interest in the book’s use of p.o.v., haha, or to what you’re saying about us not getting to see Con through the other characters’ eyes–but it kind of drove me crazy so I wanted to put it out there.

        I did count three other p.o.v. switches away from the book’s usual tight focus through Con’s viewpoint–once to Lydia/Marshall on Christmas Eve, once to Jenny/Jock in Jenny’s bedroom, and once (I think) to Claire. But none of these switches involved the closeness of that initial jump into Lydia’s point of view. These were much shorter switches, and there was a much greater distance maintained. And, ultimately, I think they contributed to a feeling of inconsistency within the work, a sense that the fictional world wasn’t operating according to set rules.

        One last thing–what’s your take on the ending? At dinner the last night in New Orleans, Donald and Susan both said they found it surprising…but I don’t know whether they meant the very end (the last two pages), which I found highly unsatisfying, or the previous chapter, with Ollie and Conrad in Go-Go’s apartment. I did feel moved by the Ollie-and-Conrad scene, and I think it works reasonably well as the climax; but those last two pages just took all the air out of the story for me.

  2. From a friend:

    “Conrad is so very un-self-aware. We can see him the way he and his family cannot. I thought that the lack of insight into his family’s angst reflected their complete lack of consciousness and insight into him, his military motivations, his homecoming experience. They have the proverbial good intentions, but as Conrad said, they are just waiting for him to “snap out of it” and be his old self. They give him what they think is a reasonable amount of time to make the transition but are inexcusably clueless about what he needs and what they could provide. The mom, especially, for a therapist! Is Robinson taking a subtle dig at our society by making the mom an ineffectual, hypocritical therapist? Even our healers don’t know how to heal the wounded when they are blinded by their biases?

    “His lack of self-awareness is a key piece of this, and something that needs attending to. Conrad is oblivious to so much despite his fancy education and officer status. He was full of idealism and romanticized expectations that were destroyed by his time in Iraq; your use of the word “savage” to describe his tours is apt. He is not only in the throes of PTSD; he’s in shock. Conrad is having an existential breakdown, not just an emotional/psychological one. That was the dimension of the book that really spoke to me: he identifies this enormous challenge, engages it, survives it, but finds it was not at all what he wanted, and when it is over he is not only different but discarded. That is what breaks him. The military does not challenge him in any of the ways he was anticipating or hoping. Instead, he discovers he was totally unprepared to be challenged on a completely different level of awareness. The experience scrapes him down to raw bone.”

  3. I’m OK with the conclusion. If the novel didn’t end in Conrad’s demise, then a successful intervention had to come from somewhere, and that it came from the brother works for me. But again, I’m thinking that we got so little of the brother’s point-of-view through the novel that the rescue seemed a little from out of nowhere. Maybe that should have been the story–the brother’s effort to figure how his beloved older brother got so far off the rails and what to do about it. For that matter, I wouldn’t have minded seeing a more extended portrayal of the year after the brother saves him. What was that like? But now we’re in the realm of speculating about the novel we wished Robinson had written, rather than the one she did. That Sparta is so tightly focused and economically described are its virtues more than they are its faults. Now someone one else can write a more expansive, meditative version of the story.

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