Roxana Robinson: Sparta
Tuesday June 4, 2013
Acclaimed author Roxana Robinson joined us at The Center to read from and discuss her new novel, Sparta.
The transition from peace to war can make a young man into a warrior. The transition from war to peace can destroy him.
Conrad Farrell has no family military heritage, but as a classics major at Williams College, he encountered the powerful appeal of the Marine ethic: “Semper fidelis” came straight from the ancient world, from Sparta, where every citizen doubled as a full-time soldier. When Conrad graduated he joined the Marines, to continue a long tradition of honor, courage, and commitment.
When Roxana Robinson’s new novel, Sparta, begins, Conrad has just returned home to Westchester after four years in Iraq, and he’s beginning to learn that something has changed in his landscape. Something has gone wrong, though things should be fine: He hasn’t been shot or wounded, he’s never had psychological troubles. But as he attempts to reconnect with his family and girlfriend, and to find his footing in the civilian world, he learns how difficult it is to return to the people and places he used to love. His life becomes increasingly difficult to negotiate: he can’t imagine his future, can’t recover his past, and can’t bring himself to occupy his present. As weeks turn into months, Conrad feels himself trapped in a life that’s constrictive and incomprehensible, and he fears that his growing rage will have irreparable consequences.
Suspenseful, compassionate and perceptive, Sparta captures the nuances of the unique estrangement that modern soldiers face as they attempt to rejoin the society they’ve fought for. Billy Collins has written that Roxana Robinson is “a master at…the work of excavating the truths about ourselves”; The Washington Post has called her “one of our best writers.” In Sparta, with the powerful insight and acuity that marked Cost and her earlier novels, Robinson delivers her best book yet.
“Robinson tells tales of psychic maladies with spellbinding intensity and acute insight. In Cost (2008), she explored drug addiction; here, she occupies the PTSD-assaulted mind of an Iraq War veteran. Conrad had everything going for him as the oldest child in a loving and achieving Westchester County family. Smart, handsome, poised, and enthralled by his college studies as a classics major, he decides to seek his own Sparta by joining the marines, thus shocking his ‘bookish and liberal’ parents. A kind and devoted officer, Conrad is appalled to find himself not in a noble and orderly military realm but, rather, in a morass of chaos, terror, futility, and crimes against humanity. Safely home at last, he is determined to restart his life, but all his discipline and training prove worthless in contending with searing insomnia, debilitating headaches, and ungovernable anger, fear, and hypervigilance. A war hero who now feels threatened in his boyhood bedroom, let alone on the jostling, hurrying streets of New York City, Conrad seeks treatment from the VA only to become ensnarled in another form of combat. Robinson’s diligently researched and profoundly realized tale of a warrior’s trauma and his family’s struggle to help him is a beautifully incisive, respectful, suspenseful, and indicting drama of our failure to grasp the full toll of war.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist, starred review
Roxana Robinson is the author of nine books - five novels: Sparta, Cost, Sweetwater, This Is My Daughter, and Summer Light; three collections of short stories: A Perfect Stranger, Asking for Love and A Glimpse of Scarlet; and the biography Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life. Four of these were chosen as New York Times Notable Books, two more as New York Times Editors’ Choices. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, Daedalus, One Story, The American Scholar, PEN Journal, Best American Short Stories and elsewhere. Her non-fiction has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Vogue, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. Her work has been widely anthologised and broadcast on NPR. Her books have been published in England, France, Germany, Holland and Spain. Robinson’s essays, reviews and Op-Eds have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The International Herald Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Tin House. She has written about gardens, plants and the natural world for House and Garden, Fine Gardening and Horticulture. Robinson is also a scholar of American Painting, and her essays in this field have appeared in Arts, Art News, and in museum exhibition catalogues. Roxana Robinson has received fellowships from the NEA, the MacDowell Colony and the Guggenheim Foundation. She was named a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library. Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life was nominated for the NBCC Award. Asking for Love was named a Book of the Year by the American Library Association. Robinson has been a fiction finalist for the National Magazine Awards. Her novel Cost was named an Editors’ Choice at The New York Times, won the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance Fiction Award for 2009, and was named one of the Five Best Fiction Books of the Year by the Washington Post. It was named one of the 12 Best Books of the Year by the Wall Street Journal, and was on the Best of the Year List at Library Journal, the Seattle Times and the Chicago Tribune. It has been long-listed for the international Dublin Impac Award for Fiction. Ms. Robinson has served on the Board of the National Humanities Council. She is currently an officer of the board of PEN American Center, and she also serves on the boards of the Authors’ Guild and the Maine Coast Heritage Trust. She is on the advisory council of The Mount. She has taught at the University of Houston, Wesleyan University and the New School. She currently teaches in the M.F.A. program at Hunter College. She lives in New York City and in Maine.