Diary of an Oxygen Thief

It’s a new year, and I’ve already knocked 2 books out so far: On the Map by Simon Garfield and Diary of an Oxygen Thief by…anonymous. I’m going to write my thoughts on the latter for a short while.

Let me preface this by saying this is a “pure” analysis/critique/reaction, in the sense that I haven’t read anything about the book and don’t know anything beyond that it was published anonymously in the last decade, appeared on some “best of” list (where I discovered it), and that the anonymous author is supposedly European (I thought he/she was Danish or Dutch, but since the protagonist is Irish, I doubt myself now).

The book plays on some familiar tropes: an antihero, potentially an unreliable narrator, with downright despicable characteristics. Heartbreak. Reinvention. Recovery. Punishment and atonement. At its heart, Diary of an Oxygen Thief is a novel about the unnamed narrator (he’s an Irishman in his late 20s to mid 30s living in the UK and US) and his evolution. It’s almost a coming-of-age story in some ways. At the start, the narrator describes how he purposefully hurts (not physically, generally) his romantic partners: leading her on until she starts falling for him, then attempting to painfully end or sabotage the relationship. Is this behavior deliberate? The narrator believes so, but perhaps there is some underlying compulsion toward this, a gratification gained from what is essentially sadism in emotional form.

This opening covers the narrator’s destruction of a 4-year relationship that seemed to be happy otherwise, despite his proclaimed infidelity. The ensuing events, the meat of the book’s plot, are attributed to be punishment for this. He turns his alcoholism around, attending AA meetings and achieving remarkable sobriety, and he turns his emotional sadism around too by way of shunning women altogether. This leads to a considerable degree of professional success in his advertising job–not itself a major plot point beyond the fact that his company sends him to a small town in Minnesota for a few years in a well-paying job.

In cold isolation in Minnesota, he lives a monastic life: no alcohol nor women, and he seemingly throws himself into his work. To please his employer, he buys a house there, cementing some kind of tie to the community. This never crystallizes beyond that, and after growing increasingly despondent, he goes to New York on business. He meets and quickly obsesses over an Irish woman there, Aisling, whom he was warned about being a heartbreaker on a trip home to Ireland.

His ensuing heartbreak continues the penance. Has he atoned for his earlier sins? Difficult to say. That interpretation requires viewing Aisling as an angel of vengeance for the women he wronged previously, which is implausible. Has he grown? This, I believe, is the important takeaway. He maintains his sobriety and avoids falling back into other destructive habits. This is assuredly growth in some way. This novel is at best only his version of events, however, which may not be taken as the undiluted truth.

Now I intend to read some other thoughts on the matter. If I get some brain wave or my earlier thoughts are proven inept or inane, I may update this post below.

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