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Diary of an Oxygen Thief: a Nihilistic Novel with Some Heart

Published 2006, Gallery Books

The narrator of Diary of an Oxygen Thief is a ribald madman who thrives on loving and leaving unsuspecting women. Part of the pain is his, part is the pain that he gives. 

After one such sexual encounter, he writes, “Later, she left a message on my machine saying I’d raped her” (24).  To be clear, he did not rape her; yet nonetheless he left her feeling abandoned and emotionally abused.  Ironically, these antics in the present day would likely get the narrator accused and possibly convicted of rape (which is perhaps the one transgression which he is not guilty of).  This level of womanizing simply could not survive the me-too era.  Fortunately for him, the novel was published in 2006. 

“The pain involved in a premeditated broken heart would easily compare with a case of assault, and yet no court of law would recognize it as a crime” (33).  Here again is the rub.  Because nowadays, it very well could be a crime, should a girl allege rape. A sympathetic jury might tend to agree.  And if this occurs on a college campus due to a malicious interpretation of Title IX, there wouldn’t even be the benefit of a jury. 

His four year relationship with his girlfriend Penelope ends in bizarre fashion; the narrator enjoys drawing out a confrontational break-up conversation after meeting her in a bar.  He was simply bored of her sexually and otherwise.  Yet his ruminations after the break up suggest that he did indeed love her.  At any rate, the break up precipitates a downward spiral of pointless cruelty and alcoholism. 

…the break up precipitates a downward spiral of pointless cruelty and alcoholism.

Just as inexplicably as the narrator enjoys hurting these girls, he intentionally provokes them to take revenge on him:  “I’d never had beer thrown in my face before.  It was flattering” (28), he says after provoking one of his female victims.  This gluttony for punishment extends to males; he provokes other men of more imposing stature to physically attack him. Naturally, the mirror image of giving pain is receiving it, and he desires both.  In that sense, the novel is thematically reminiscent of another nihilistic novel, Fight Club.  

Diary of an Oxygen Thief continues with his outrageous exploits, yet then the mood shifts unexpectedly.  The reckless tone set in the beginning of the novel is not sustained.  Because the novel changes so drastically, the narrative is given a heart which is lacking in the madmen scenes of the opening pages (which at any rate made you keep on reading). 

The voice of the narrator is the unadulterated male id, speaking what is normally unspoken, and what is below the radar of consciousness.   It is male desire in all its darkness, personified in a wretched, nihilistic persona; whose sustenance is alcohol. In his wake is a trail of jilted and stunned women. 

Lurking within us too– maybe–is this perverse desire somewhere tucked away.  Then imagine if it were quite conscious and deliberate–and amplified.  This is the premise of Diary of an Oxygen Thief.  Again, this is why its publication is so shocking (more on that later). 

The writing style is terse, exquisite, and frequently humorous.  It is written in an informal tone which often breaks the fourth wall; after all, it is a diary.  The narrator laments:  “And if this never gets published, it’s your fault too, because it means this type of story was deemed uninteresting to you” (91).  There is an ironic and defiant preoccupation with the book’s own publication throughout, which adds another level of authenticity to the voice. 

The wry prose are wrought with considerable literary flair.  One begins to suspect that the author chose to remain anonymous because he would not otherwise have been able to achieve such a level of brutal honesty in the writing.  The novel is said to be autobiographical; or else it is hard to imagine such a vivid portrayal otherwise.  

The narrator’s alcoholism and sadism stem from the same source, which compelled him to drink and to hurt women.  When he quits alcohol, he still feels a sort of demon within himself:  “alcoholism minus the alcohol” (53), as he put it.  Despite quitting alcohol, he is still an addict in some sense.   

Despite quitting alcohol, he is still an addict in some sense.   

From Ireland, the now sober narrator moves to Minnesota, with frequent laments about the cold and the lack of urbanity in the Midwest.  He sticks to his AA program and has also sworn off women.  To go from his drunken, lecherous, womanizing ways to this seems a lesson in extremes; another manifestation of an addictive personality.  

All the while, he marvels at what he considers the stupidity and lack of sophistication of his new home in the Midwest, hoping gravely that he too will not begin saying things like “You betcha.”   He owns a large Victorian house and occupies it by himself; feeling that he does not deserve such a grand lifestyle nor does he really belong in his house or this town.  

At this point, the sharp, nihilistic tone to the novel has abated.  The narrator even expresses remorse for the girls that he hurt.  He would find them to apologize, but, he explains, “the AA way is not to go back to places where we might cause even more pain” (70).  It has now been five years since he has foresworn both alcohol and women. 

From this self-revelation, the narrative arc shifts again when we are introduced to Aisling, a 27 year old photography assistant whom the narrator, an art director for an ad agency, met on a shoot.  While they enjoy a passionate night together, she by degrees becomes more distant after that.  The narrator begins to suspect that she has some evil plan in regards to him–or is it just his paranoia?  

The unreliable narrator situation unfolds as we are left to wonder just what Aisling’s angle is. The tone becomes surreal.  We are not sure what is actually happening and what might be mere imagination or paranoia.  At any rate, the tables have turned, and the narrator now finds himself at the mercy of a woman he loves, rather than victimizing women who have fallen for him. 

The narrator reflects back on his experience from his alcoholic days: 

I’d lull them into my so-called web, and when I was convinced they were in love with me, I’d start to turn on them…I enjoyed hurting them.  I wasn’t aware of the depth of effect I was capable of achieving.  I knew how much they liked me only after I’d hurt them, by which time it was too late.  Correction.  I knew.  That’s exactly why I hurt them.  How could they like me.  I was punishing them for liking me. (146)

Here is a more human description of his range of emotions than during his depredations in the beginning of the novel.  The persona we are introduced to in the opening chapters is monstrous and inhuman.  Here there is a voice which is still cruel, but now human and self-reflecting.  Now he states that he was “unaware”; as though he is being driven by forces that are beyond him to control: addiction, self-hatred, sadism, masochism.  It’s an unholy stew which he was brewing, and which ultimately came back to avenge him in the form of Aisling, with her own surreal brand of humiliation.  Yet it is a fall from the demented swagger of the drunken womanizer that he was. 

The Story Behind the Novel 

Besides the compelling story of the novel itself, the authorship and promotion of the book constitute another narrative.  For one, who is “Anonymous”?  According to the Seattle Times, the author is, unsurprisingly, a 40 something Irishman who, like his protagonist, worked as an art director in advertising.  At least that is a description which matches a mysterious figure who personally delivered the novel to book stores prior to signing with a publisher.  

Just as his protagonist eventually moves to NYC, Anonymous has lived in the East Village for ten years.  Given the similarity of the protagonist to the author, who also designed its cover, the book can be considered an autobiographical novel, or a fictionalized memoir. 

The same Seattle Times article states that his twitter feed as @02thief, yet the account has only 20 followers and doesn’t…tweet anything.  If that is the author, he’s not exactly exploiting his social media.  With that said, this opacity matches the persona in his novels as well as the persona (or lack thereof) that he has cultivated as an author, albeit anonymously.  

The novel is a self-publishing success story.  Only after this success did it draw the interest of literary agent Byrd Leavell.  By cracking Amazon’s 100 top sellers, the self-published book was able to achieve mainstream success in a way that eludes the vast majority of self-publishing authors (and also eludes most traditionally published authors).  

This inspiring independent success story is even more heroic as the novel is so transgressive to the politically correct values of the publishing world.  They had to be dragged along after the author had already proven the demand for the book.  With the womanizing protagonist taking vengeance on the female gender in the book’s opening pages, it was unlikely that the female-dominated publishing world would have opened its doors to the good gentleman otherwise. 

Anonymous himself spoke to the nature of anonymity and self-publishing in an interview. He expressed a desire to stay anonymous in future publications, as he prefers not to have a “cheesy photo” on the backcover with trite personal details–or could it be that he would find his biographical info and photo somehow lacking?  It is not for us to judge, after all he wrote a fine novel.  

His thoughts on self-publishing continue to be relevant: 

“My best advice to a self-published writer is to try to say something that established publishers can’t or won’t. This way your content and marketing merge into one.”

This was my suspicion: Diary of an Oxygen Thief is too unapologetically masculine in its perspective to have received backing of the establishment. Rather, they had to be dragged along.  Certainly, this is not to suggest that the narrator, in all his cruelty, is typical of the male perspective.  Yet it is some iteration of the male experience which is strikingly absent from the literary scene today.  That is what makes this novel special, and why it holds a special niche in the market which otherwise sorely lacks this perspective. 

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