Reading from A Separate Reality

A lot of people I know feel like these days life is more of a struggle than it used to be. I know that I often think longingly of the life my parents led when they were first married in the early 1970’s, when food and housing was cheap and technology wasn’t so all-encompassing.

Author Robert Marshall has written a novel entitled A Separate Reality that deals with a young man’s struggle for meaning, identity and place that is set in the 1970’s, which, having read the summary of the book, has effectively dashed my idealized version of that era. Marshall will be reading from his book tomorrow night at Giovanni’s Room (12th and Pine) at 5:30 pm on Thursday, February 22nd.

A full summary of the book and a brief bio of the author after the jump.

Carroll & Graf publishes
By Robert Marshall

Debut novelist delves into dynamics of adolescence, family, and a life of the mind

“A Separate Reality beautifully depicts the poignant and bizarre condition called adolescence. It’s a wonderful, imaginative work.” – Lynne Tillman

The mind of a youth is a wild, complicated beast, indeed, and that of a lonely, intelligent creative youth all but defies understanding – making Robert Marshall’s narrative, A Separate Reality all the more extraordinary. The first novel from this gifted artist and writer, A Separate Reality (Carroll & Graf, November 2006) captures all the tortured, searching, and often comic angst of adolescence churning inside the head of Mark Grosfeld, budding poet, social misfit, and spiritual seeker.

Mark, the oldest son and middle child of an intellectual, politically active Jewish family living in Phoenix in the early 1970s, suffers from both the self-conscious ungainliness endemic to his years (“I wanted to disappear; I didn’t know what to do with my hands, my eyes, my thoughts”) as well as a piercing awareness of posturing and insincerity. He must also contend with his ostensibly liberal father’s anxiety over his less than masculine behavior. Early on, he is sent to a psychiatrist to be cured of his desire to be a girl; later he’s sent to summer camp in the hope that this will somehow de-sissify him.

At the same time that he’s engaged in the struggle over identity, Mark is on a quest for meaning, looking for guidance to Anna, his art teacher, a hippie holdout who talks of auras and encourages Mark’s poetic talents while introducing him to Taoism, Buddhism, and Carlos Castaneda (A Separate Reality shares its title with one of Castaneda’s works). As Mark delves more deeply into Castaneda’s teachings, he must eventually confront the possibility that the then world famous guru-anthropologist, vouched for by Anna, The New York Times and Time magazine, may indeed be a fraud. He then faces a peculiar, private and very 70’s crisis of faith.

Mark’s profound, inchoate longing for meaning – a meaning apart from his family, his school, his lack of friends and hopelessness at sports – colors his every interaction, whether navigating the shifting waters of family dynamics, remembering his beloved grandmother, coming to grips with his queerness, or trying to convey the essence of a moment by means of poetry. Words make the memories, the meanings, last. “Writing could be a way of seeing,” he discovers, and words “a world of their own – in which anything was possible.”

Marshall deftly conveys his narrator’s keen awareness of life’s every nuance, an awareness that finally seems to chase its tail as Mark’s mental overdrive implodes into obsessive compulsion: “I keep thinking about not thinking,” Mark frets at one point, while at another explaining to his psychiatrist, “It’s like there’s just a mirror looking into the mirror.” Even while striving to live in the moment, he can’t help wondering how he’ll remember that moment years hence – not to mention how The New York Times will portray it in some future profile of him. For all its narrator’s philosophizing, A Separate Reality is also spiced with a sly humor, as when Mark chides himself that “a Taoist shouldn’t stew.”

It’s also an insightful exploration of the bonds among family members – Mark’s intense love for his mother even as he senses that their closeness cannot last, his struggles with his father, his teenaged sister’s combative ways – and a vivid evocation of the heady days of weed and Watergate, Cat Stevens and Captain Beefheart. With a legacy running from FDR’s brain trust to the Rosenbergs to George McGovern’s doomed presidential bid, the Grosfelds themselves are a microcosm of 20th Century Jewish liberal activism, a birthright that at times overwhelms young Mark.

A Separate Reality is at its core the story of a boy’s coming of age as he struggles to reconcile the spiritual with the mundane, the perfect with the imperfect, closeness with distance. Weaving these threads within his narrator’s stream of consciousness, Marshall’s portrait of the artist as a young man in the seventies both re-imagines a more idealistic, not so long lost reality, and illuminates the impossible dichotomy of being both at one with the world and at odds with it.

About the Author

Robert Marshall ( was born in Eugene, Oregon, and grew up in Phoenix, Arizona. He is an accomplished visual artist whose work has been exhibited in the United States, Europe, and South America, and his fiction has appeared in Blithe House Quarterly and Euphony as well as in the anthologies Afterwords, Queer 14, and Fresh Men II. In addition, his interviews and criticism have appeared in New York Press, on ArtNet, and in PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art. Marshall founded the “Prose in General” reading series at New York’s Art in General, and he is currently the director of “Writers at the Alliance,” a reading series at The Educational Alliance. He has received fellowships from the Macdowell Colony, Yaddo, the Virginia Center, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Robert Marshall lives in New York.

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