Photo of Roxana Robinson by David Ignaszewski-Koboy
By Roxana Robinson
Sarah Crichton Books/FSG, 2013
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been going on for over a decade now, and the consequences — human, financial, political, cultural — have become increasingly clear in the last few years. With sufficient time having passed to start making sense of these wars and the larger “War on Terror,” novelists have begun interpreting the experiences of going to war and coming home again in such powerful books as Sand Queen by Helen Benedict (2011), Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (2012 National Book Critics Circle Award-winner), and The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (2012 National Book Award nominee).
June 2013 brought us Roxana Robinson’s Sparta, which may well go down as the definitive depiction of the costs of war paid on the home front. In a gripping third person narrative, Robinson shadows Conrad Farrell upon his return from four years of front-line duty in Iraq. During his senior year as a Classics major at Williams College, inspired by his study of Homer’s The Iliad, as well as the works of Aeschylus, Thucydides, and Tacitus, Conrad decides to join the Marine Corps and attend Officer Candidate School.
He tells his parents, “I want to do something big. I don’t want to just go into some graduate school and get another degree. I want to do something that has consequences. This is the biggest challenge I know. I want to see if I can do it.” Conrad wants to be a warrior as well as a scholar, so that he can be a man who fulfills the ancient Greek conception of masculinity. Lydia, a family therapist, and Marshall, a law professor at NYU, are taken aback by Con’s decision but attempt to be supportive.
Sparta moves back and forth in time from Conrad’s tour of duty to his return home. But the core of the story concerns his attempts to cope with PTSD, reestablish his relationships with his family, friends, and girlfriend Claire, and to reintegrate into a civilian world that he finds mystifying and occasionally even infuriating. He has left some crucial part of himself behind in Iraq and struggles to find his true self again. To an observer he appears to be the ideal American warrior specimen, but inside he is psychologically and emotionally shattered. His mood varies from apathy to an attempt to resume his life to contempt for the weak, oblivious, and over-indulged people he encounters at home in the cozy confines of northern Westchester County and on his frequent day trips into Manhattan.
Conrad is an utterly believable and sympathetic protagonist, torn between two worlds and comfortable in neither. His parents and siblings are decent, compassionate people who simply cannot comprehend what he has been through and are at a loss for how to help him reconnect to his previous life. The pre-Iraq War version of Conrad no longer exists, but those around him see what appears to be the Con they know and love, and it takes them a long time to realize that something is amiss. Robinson foreshadows this theme early on, when Lydia and Marshall wait to reunite with Conrad at Camp Pendleton Marine Base near San Diego. “They scanned the rows [of Marines standing at attention], and Lydia felt a sudden fear: that he was not here after all, that he had been somehow lost. It was irrational — they knew he was here — but familiar. Fear had become part of her consciousness.”
Conrad is only comfortable around other veterans, but he knows that is not the way forward. He doesn’t want to return to Iraq, even though he feels that the men he left behind there are the only people who understand him now. In short, he does not fit in anywhere. He is trapped, unable to go backward or forward.
Robinson’s psychologically astute portrayal of Conrad’s PTSD is grueling but necessary for the rest of us to experience. The symptoms begin on the flight home and continue even when he does something as simple as taking a shower at the hotel near the base.
“He was here, standing in the bathtub in a hotel in America. He was back. What lay before him was dinner with his parents, nothing more than that, and he was not in danger, there was no threat outside this room, his body was not held tightly on alert, nerves singing, waiting endlessly for the sound of the explosion; he was here in this clean, tiled space, alone, and he was safe, and this was a kind of miracle. The shower curtain drifted against his shoulder and he twitched reflexively, but it was only the shower curtain moving in the current of air made by the shower. It was nothing. He was safe, and at that surprising thought he felt something stinging around his eyes: he was crying.”
When Conrad goes down to the hotel restaurant to meet his parents for their first dinner together, it is an anxiety-producing situation of the highest order. The restaurant is mobbed with returning Marines and their families, so their party of three ends up seated at a large table in the middle of the room.
“He hated this. They were in the dead center of the room, full tables around them in every direction. On one side a wall of breakable glass gave onto a public thoroughfare. Behind him, double swinging doors led to the kitchen, where people pushed back and forth. He didn’t like being in the middle of the room. He didn’t like having his back to the swinging doors, and he didn’t like people suddenly appearing behind him. He didn’t like the big plate-glass windows giving onto the beach just beyond them, strangers walking past carrying bags. Conrad began to sweat.”
They order dinner and Lydia asks, “So, Con, how are you really?”
“He looked at her. His father, too, was waiting. But it was impossible to drag the whole lumbering world of Iraq — hot, smoky, contaminated, the fucking sand, and the sound, that terrible enveloping sound that filled the world — to this table. None of it was transferable. The sound of mortars. The foul black smell of the shitters. Setting out through the narrow streets of Haditha. Waiting for the sound, the giant earth-stopping sound of explosion. The screen you put between yourself and the rest of the world. He had no words for this; there was no bridge between that place and this. ‘Glad to be back,’ he said, and smiled.”
Conrad’s attempts to adjust include trying to renew his relationship with Claire, his college girlfriend. When they go out to their first dinner in a crowded Manhattan restaurant, there is a tense moment when his hair-trigger temper creates something of a scene with an older couple. He tries to converse with Claire, but everything feels wrong. He is wired for Iraq, where everyone and everything is a threat at all times.
“He couldn’t focus on her, couldn’t keep his gaze on her face…. The noise was enormous. What made him so wild, what made his throat swell with rage, was the fact that no one here knew anything, no one here understood about the real world. No one understood what you looked for on the street (risk assessment), how you cleared a room (always moving as a team, though you had to slip through the fatal funnel one by one), how many shots you fired to kill someone (three), how you identified yourself on the radio (company, platoon, individual), how to establish a perimeter, or what the risks were in a room like this, filled with moving people and noise. They knew fuck-all here, everyone.
“He wondered if this was what it had been like after World War II, soldiers arriving home from the battlefield to all those beaming civilians. But back then the soldiers had had critical mass, and the war had been a national effort. Not like this, where no one could even find Iraq on the map. No one knew why we were there, no one could remember if we’d found WMDs or not.
“He looked down at his plate. What he wanted was for Claire to understand all this without his saying it, because he didn’t know how to say it. He couldn’t describe, even to himself, what it was that was hanging low and threatening over his head.”
The rest of Sparta explores Conrad’s slow downward spiral. He is stubbornly and frustratingly uncommunicative with his family and Claire, despite their efforts to support him and get him to talk. Frequent flashbacks to his experiences in Iraq provide heart- and gut-wrenching explanations for his PTSD and his inability to fit in to the “normal” world back home. Everyone wants him to pick up where he left off four years earlier, but that is impossible for Conrad. While those at home spent four years waiting and worrying, but generally continued with their lives unaffected, he spent them in a state of constant fear and hyper-vigilance, traumatized by the gruesome deaths of some of his men. When he joins his family for Christmas dinner, Conrad, experiencing survivor’s guilt, wonders, “Why was he here? Those others were not here, not home. How did it work, the algebra of lost souls? Where were they, the others?”
Sparta also exposes the mind-numbing, Kafka-esque bureaucratic carousel of the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is worse than useless in providing desperately needed mental health care to Conrad and other vets of both the current war and past conflicts.
Despite trying to stabilize his relationship with Claire, find a job, and apply to graduate school, nothing seems to turn out right. Conrad begins to lose hope that his circumstances will ever improve. The last section of the book is something of a page-turning thriller, as the reader wonders what Conrad will do to solve what appear to him to be overwhelming and unsolvable difficulties.
Robinson’s exhaustive research and her exceptional insight into what it means to be human combine to produce an intense novel that is both a character study and a searing document of our times. If I had to choose one novel about the experience of Iraq War veterans coming home that will still be read in 20 years — and likely considered a modern classic — it would be Sparta. It is required reading for anyone who cares about the human costs of war.