EARLIER THIS YEAR, it was reported that the suicide rate among US military veterans had jumped to 22 per day, or almost one an hour, and that suicide is now the most common cause of death among active duty personnel. Self-annihilation stalks Roxana Robinson’s new novel Sparta like a specter of unholy temptation, belonging to what her protagonist Conrad Farrell calls “the lower world […] the dark, dreaming undercurrent.” It is the invisible enemy that follows soldiers home, lurking just out of sight, laying traps like the IEDs that Conrad can’t stop looking out for, even in the sunlit, careless “upper world,” where nobody is watching anyone else’s back.
There are two worlds, as there are two places: here and there, home and war. Roxana Robinson’s quietly harrowing novel opens with Conrad traveling between those places, on a plane returning home at the end of his commission, already struggling not to mix them up: “He could not hold both places in his mind at once. Trying to do so felt risky.” In the dark and silence, surrounded by his sleeping men, he tries not to think, breathes deeply, and feels a rasp in his lungs: sand and dust, “Iraq, inside him, forever.” The war has become a pollutant in his body, impossible to explain or to expel.
Conrad is an atypical Marine officer. A classics major, he decides to enlist during his junior year at Williams College, a couple years before 9/11 — a deliberate detail of timing that takes the patriotic revenge mission out of Conrad’s muddle of motivations. His decision is rooted in his love of The Iliad and his fascination with the Spartans, and in a less intellectual drive to test himself, to come through and to belong. The conversation in which Conrad reveals his plan to his parents is one of the few sections he does not narrate: instead, we hear about it from his mother’s point of view, who finds herself floundering on the outside of a newly revealed male bond between her husband and son: “All of it bewildered Lydia: the pride in Conrad’s voice, the understanding in Marshall’s.” Conrad’s impulse is inherently masculine, but Lydia’s maternal protest is just as fierce, gendered, and primal: “He can’t be risked.” Marshall and Lydia are “bookish and liberal” — he a professor, she a family therapist — and have grown up in the shadow of Vietnam, which made the military toxic, a cultural anathema. After Conrad’s announcement, Lydia is forced to reckon with a shift in the national memory: “She saw that the shapes of ideas changed, slowly, like clouds, within the public mind.” What had been hollow has been imperceptibly reinvested with meaning, to the point where semper fidelis rings true to Conrad.
The novel plays homage to the classical genre of the nostos, the hero’s arduous homecoming, represented most famously by the Odyssey. Conrad is enamored of Homer’s Iliad, but fails to recognize the parallels between his own return and Odysseus’s — if his studies had focused on the Odyssey, he might have been prepared for the chasm that lies between the martial and the domestic worlds, and the impossibility of reconciling them. He might have recalled the scene in which Odysseus’s son Telemachos, searching for clues as to his father’s fate, visits the reunited Menelaos and Helen, only to find the ageing king recycling stories of Troy while his wife mixes up mind-altering drugs to blur their memories and get them through the night. Like Conrad, Odysseus is called upon to entertain civilians with thrilling stories: the Odyssey’s most famous tales, of the Cyclops and the Sirens, are those that a disguised Odysseus relates to his hosts, the insular, immature, luxury-sated Phaeacians, for whom war is a source of entertainment. Conrad also struggles to sate civilian curiosity, searching within his violent experience for the fragments that can be shaped into benign anecdotes, in which his men clown and tease but do not kill or die.
Classical stories of heroes’ homecomings obsess over the fidelity of the women left behind, placing Odysseus’s faithful Penelope in archetypal opposition to Clytaemnestra, wife of his leader Agamemnon. In Aeschylus’s tragic version, the victorious king is welcomed home from Troy with ceremony and flattery by his wife, only to be murdered by her in the bathtub, the most intimate and vulnerable of domestic spaces. Clytaemnestra has been sleeping with another man — and ruling Agamemnon’s kingdom with him — all along. Agamemnon’s fate is a horror story for military men, like the Athenian veterans of the Battle of Marathon who made up Aeschylus’s original audience. Their wives’ infidelity haunts the imagination of soldiers — even modern, understanding ones like Conrad. Although his college girlfriend, Claire, has written to cool their relationship, he can’t shake his obsession with what she’s done in his absence: “Four years. She hadn’t been sealed in plastic.” When they meet, he resorts to uncharacteristically crude language to accuse her of the age-old crime: “Do you fuck him?” “I’m not using that word,” she protests. “You use it like a weapon.” Which of course it is, just like Conrad himself — a weapon that mustn’t be used.
Primed, trained, and on high alert, Conrad cannot disarm himself. In one scene, driving to the beach with his mother, Conrad begins to register the presence of a small white sedan. “Nearly every car in Iraq was a small white sedan. Everyone drove them: taxi drivers, businessmen, and insurgents. Suicide bombers.” He’s used to driving in a convoy, on a cleared road, but in heavy holiday traffic begins to lurch and swerve between lanes, increasingly dangerously, as his adrenaline and his imagination take over. His mother Lydia is telling a story about visiting beach houses to pick one out for rental, and how it felt to walk through and assess a stranger’s life. Her story is emotional, feminine, domestic — a civilian tale ranged against the war story playing out in Conrad’s head. Both are equally real to him, but he is stuck, unable to judge between them, to choose one reality over another.
At the end of the Odyssey, when Odysseus slaughters Penelope’s suitors in his own palace, spilling their blood in the dining hall, he collapses the gap between the violent war and the peaceful home. It is a victory that brings an army of the dead suitors’ relatives marching on his doorstep, and although the goddess Athena intervenes to avert Troy II, the implication is clear: that a returned soldier can’t help but bring the war home with him. Conrad’s family and friends, all desperately well meaning, fail to understand what he and Odysseus both know, that survival depends on keeping the two worlds separate. In powerful flashbacks, we learn that Conrad has seen violence in all the wrong places: homes with blood-smeared walls, children dead in their pajamas. Every room he enters in America is a potential combat zone. He measures doors and windows, needs to sit with his back to the wall, marvels at how careless civilians are, how slow their reactions. They take nothing seriously, dwelling in irony: “Like I care: that should be the national motto.” But they don’t understand how fragile and arbitrary their safety is, how fundamentally unfair. Just after Conrad and his men are reunited with their families, that injustice is summed up in stark, basic terms: “No one would round a corner to find something lying on the street, ripped open and gasping, ruby-colored, terrible. These wives and children and parents, with their cameras and rental cars and balloons, were exempt from all that.”
Robinson’s great strength in this extraordinary novel is in treating the civilian characters with sympathy and respect, and creating their world with tangible, exhaustive detail. The characters have conversations in real, ordinary places: when Conrad meets an old college friend turned Wall Street hotshot in a bar near Columbia called Haakon’s Hall, I was shaken with recognition, and suddenly the cluttered vegan food store and café in Williamstown, where Conrad tells Claire that he plans to enlist, becomes not just realistic but real. In private spaces too, details matter: the size of rooms, the placements of windows and doors, the layout of furniture, the provenance of objects — because this is what we civilians value, and what we go to war to protect. Conrad’s siblings and friends are always awkwardly apologizing for the things that are important to them: moving in with a boyfriend, deciding what college courses to study, how to deal with a difficult boss. But the separation of the two worlds depends on the civilian, domestic world having value in itself. Otherwise, we’re left with Sparta.
In Robinson’s typically needle-sharp description, the militaristic ancient Greek city-state of Sparta is chilling because its methods are so recognizable in the training Conrad has received: initiation, ritual, dehumanization of the enemy, subjection of feeling to force. “The business of Sparta was war, and all else was subjugated to that.” Sparta took its elite boys from their families at the age of seven and subjected them to harsh communal living to toughen them up and forge deep bonds with their fellow initiates. When they fought, they famously marched in phalanx formation, each man’s shield overlapping with his neighbor’s, so that they were dependent on each other for survival, an unbreakable unit. Less famously, they were cast out at 30, required suddenly to marry and produce offspring to be the next generation of initiates. The effect of this sudden, state-mandated shift in a soldier’s priorities must have been a near-fatal shock, to say nothing of what the wives of those violent, unmoored men might have had to endure. Sparta could not sustain its system, but its systems passed into legend and its perversions, Robinson suggests, into modern military culture.
In his civilian isolation, Conrad finds solace reading military blogs and emails from his men, which feel both authentic and tragically incomplete — it’s clear that the jokes and the ritual affirmations of brotherhood are masking unendurable pain. Anderson, the pale blond Minnesotan who sleeps next to Conrad on the plane ride home, communicates his deterioration in oblique fragments, until just before Christmas with his family, at his own lowest ebb, Conrad hears the worst. If an officer is unable to save his men — even one who has saved his own life in Iraq — where does that leave the phalanx, the brotherhood, semper fi? Anderson’s fate recalls that of the suicidal Norman Bowker in Tim O’ Brien’s The Things They Carried, who drives round and round a lake in his hometown, glimpsing the peaceful world in fragments, unable to communicate his experience or stop the endless circle. The real difference between the civilian and military worlds is the difference between isolation and community. The unit fragments and the soldier finds himself alone, more deeply alone than he was before he enlisted, more alone than he has ever been. In tracing the contours and the ramifications of that isolation, Robinson creates a modern archetype of the returned hero, an Odysseus for our world.
And speaking of courage: if Robinson’s novel rises to the pitch of polemic, it is in the shamefully shabby treatment Conrad receives when he tries to reach out to the VA for help. He’s aware of the double bind, and even able to articulate it to his parents: “Marines can’t say they’re in trouble. Not if they still think of themselves as Marines.” But even knowing this, there’s still no way for Conrad to get help unless he can say what’s wrong, write out his symptoms on a regulation form: “exactly what he did not want to describe or think about: the way things turned suddenly dark, the thundering rage, or the avalanche of terror that swept over him.” When he finally does get in to see a doctor for a few minutes, he is prescribed pills that (he learns online) all carry the increased risk of suicide. In the end, he realizes, survival — which means learning how to find value in the civilian world — is in his own hands, alone. It’s not a comfortable conclusion, but the great power of the novel lies in its ability to make Conrad’s experience — based on extensive interviews with Iraq war veterans — into something both idiosyncratic and authentic, but at the same time, indicative of much larger truths. The problem is not the VA or the treatment of veterans on their return — it’s what they’re being asked to do in the first place. It’s the war, not the homecoming, that’s the tragedy.