Diary of an Oxygen Thief by Anonymous
After I finished reading Diary of an Oxygen Thief, I ran a Twitter search for mentions of it. This produced many, many tweets from people praising the book - and interestingly many of them were from teenagers, mostly American, but some British. "Really wanna read Diary of an Oxygen Thief." "OMG, this book literally describes me." "Finally got my copy of Diary of an Oxygen Thief [photo of manicured teenage hand resting on the book open at the first page]."
I've no idea if there's been a social media marketing campaign that's fuelled this buzz, but if there has, and it's been aimed at teenagers, it's an interesting strategy because this really isn't a young adult book at all. The narrator is an advertising executive in his 30s, a relatively wealthy recovering alcoholic from Ireland and now working in the US - despite the publisher's blurb, he is absolutely not a Holden Caulfield figure and this is a million miles from being The Catcher In The Rye. He's a grown man, not a voice of disaffected youth. (The blurb also compares another character to Lolita, which is also wildly inaccurate given that Aisling is a grown woman who deliberately sets out to seduce and humiliate, and says a great deal about the disturbing way in which some people read Lolita.) My assumption is that teenagers might like this book because they consider it grown-up, edgy and dangerous - much as teenagers often read Brett Easton Ellis Jay McInerney or Chuck Palahniuk, perhaps. Unfortunately, the quality of Diary of an Oxygen Thief just doesn't measure up to the work of any of these writers.
The 'anonymous' authorship is, I think, simply an attempt to make people think the book is a memoir, which I strongly doubt it really is. The narrator begins by announcing 'I liked hurting girls' and goes on to outline the pleasure he took in deliberately being cruel to (and in one case, raping) various women during his drinking years in London. His other hobby is deliberately getting himself beaten up in bars. Eventually he stops drinking, at which point his hobby becomes attending AA meetings instead, and he takes an exceptionally well-paid job at an American advertising agency in the Mid-West, where he buys a beautiful house and constantly complains about it.
Having avoided women for quite some time, he no longer makes a point of hurting them, although the desire certainly remains in him and he is still an obvious misogynist. He's then introduced to Aisling, with whom he immediately becomes obsessed - not least because although she's in her 20s, she looks to him as if she could be under age. But Aisling, it seems, is not going to play his game. Could it be that our narrator is finally to get his comeuppance for his obnoxious, abusive past?
I have many problems with this book. The fact that the narrator is repulsive isn't one of them, but the fact that he's dull really is. There is nothing very interesting about him: he's a self-pitying, paranoid, self-destructive misogynist arsehole, and that's pretty much it. There are lots of men like him knocking around in real life, and they aren't very interesting people either. There's nothing new here, nothing complicated, nothing to learn (unless, perhaps, you're very young and a little naive, which might account for some of the book's popularity with teenagers). Because the narrator is so endlessly self-absorbed and we only see people in the book through his eyes, the other characters are paper-thin - including Aisling. It's hard to see a character as a fascinating nemesis when she's being described as looking like a 16-year-old Virgin Mary.
The other issue I had with Diary of an Oxygen Thief is that while the book constantly promises the narrator is about to fall victim to a shocking, humiliating revenge, the narrator in question is also exceptionally paranoid, so it's rather unclear whether what happens to him is real or imagined. He is also convinced, for example, that he is being stalked by his own employer. Most frustratingly of all, when the supposed comeuppance occurs - even if we read it as something that definitely happened and means what he believes it to mean - it's incredibly anticlimactic. It's pretty obvious that the point the book seems to be making is the narrator is his own worst enemy and that's he's effectively trapped himself in the cesspool of his own repressed guilt and paranoia, but it's clumsily executed - to the point where it's even pointed out to us: "They say you're not punished for your sins, you're punished by them," the narrator says. Subtle it certainly isn't.
This is one of those books that tries far too hard to shock, far too hard to be edgy. I recently reviewed Ottessa Moshfegh's Eileen, which also has a deeply unlikeable narrator leading a largely squalid life, but in that book, the author's skill renders Eileen fascinating despite, or perhaps even because, of her damaged, bitter way of thinking. The anonymous writer of Diary of an Oxygen Thief never comes close to making his narrator someone I'd find interesting on any level, let alone making me care about what might happen to him. Antiheroes are great, but there has to be something bewitching or fascinating about them. The narrator of this book has none of those qualities.