The point is to tell you how I purged myself of my sins against women, and indeed, against myself.
I almost didn’t read this book at all. Its very first line is “I liked hurting girls”, and the second line is “Mentally, not physically.” If you’ve spent much time around here at all, you’ll know that I have personal experience of men who like hurting girls mentally-not-physically, and that I don’t have a whole lot of time for that anymore. Furthermore, The Pool describes the whole book as “as hipster as a £3 bowl of Rice Krispies on Shoreditch High Street.” So, am I its ideal reader? Is it even remotely my aesthetic? Hell to the no. And did it completely redeem itself in my eyes? Not completely. But there are parts of it that I think are very valuable. They just might not be the parts the author intended.
Something that might comfort you (it did me) is that although this is written by “Anonymous”, although the narrator presents it as a memoir, and despite all of the seductive marketing around it that suggests its author has embarked on a decade-long guerrilla social media campaign, it is not non-fiction. It is a novel written by a Dutch person and originally published in Amsterdam ten years ago. Its narrator is an Irishman living in London and then in Minnesota. The knowledge that this particular Irishman does not actually exist was, in places, the only thing that kept me reading. He is not very nice. You can gather this from the first sentence, and also from the part where he talks about purging himself of his sins against women. Handy hint: if you’re a man and you want to purge yourself of your sins against women, you will never be able to. You will never be forgiven.
The blurb compares the narrator to Holden Caulfield, a comparison which I guess derives from prose like this:
Also, I’m completely paranoid. I mean, seriously paranoid. Not just mildly interested in the fact that there may be people who don’t necessarily have my best interests at heart. No. The word is “paranoid”. Another word is “self-centered”. I don’t like that one as much, though. Doesn’t sound medical enough.
The thing is that writing like this is totally passable to a lot of people. It achieves the effect of being wry and conversational and ironic. Millennials and hipsters like these things. And they’re not as easy as you might think: there’s an art to being casual. I’m unwilling to call this the inheritor of Salinger’s mantle, though. Holden is a lot more innocent than this guy. Holden is not calculating anything for effect. He’s not jaded or cynical. He kind of wants to be, but he’s just too young to be there yet. Our oxygen thief, on the other hand, is plenty jaded, and so instead of being a howl of raw adolescent longing and confusion, his anger and bitterness curdles.
This, however, is where the book becomes valuable, at least to me, because what the oxygen thief does par excellence is describe the myriad horrors of corporate culture. He works for an advertising agency in London, but gets headhunted for an agency based in Saint Lacroix, Minnesota. (We will gloss over the fact that a “Saint Lacroix” is unlikely, since “Lacroix” means “the Cross”. I reckon he’d have done better to call his Minnesotan town either Lacroix on its own, or Saint Something-Else. /digression) During his phone interview, he tells the interviewer
…that I was at the age where I was thinking about getting married. There followed a long moment of silence, which could only be satisfactorily explained by him punching the air in triumph and straightening his clothes before continuing. He began to talk like someone I’d known for years, dropping all use of the conditional tense in favor of the future.
When he arrives in America, the ad agency helps him out with the purchase of a beautiful old Victorian house, which turns out to be a major millstone. He only wants to be in the States for a year or two at the most, but suddenly here he is with a mortgage. He thinks of it, initally, as an investment, money he can make back when he sells. But then the house doesn’t sell. And his boss starts to point out to him the eligible girls in the office. When he doesn’t come to the Christmas party, the agency arranges for two ice sculptures to be placed either side of his front door. You can see pretty clearly why someone might begin to feel paranoid in this environment. And then there’s this, which is one of those observations that so neatly encapsulates a difference, you actually want to put the book down and gaze into the middle distance for a minute or two:
[In Minnesota] there also seemed to be a great deal of pride in the bulbous nature of a pregnant belly, a phenomenon I had not yet encountered. In London, pregnancy was associated with failure and social death. Here it was encouraged. People got promoted after having a kid. A little fleshy anchor prevented the minds of America’s corporate soldiers from drifting too far from its assignments.
Weird pronoun inconstencies in the final sentence aside, how spot on is that? Can you even imagine getting a promotion after procreating in this country? Lololololol, as a university friend of mine would say. Not that it doesn’t happen sometimes, but please look at these case studies if you’re under the illusion that it’s standard. In the US, however, the fear of poverty and the pressing need to save up for a kid’s university tuition from the minute they’re born makes parents fantastic employees. A parent will put up with all kinds of workplace bullshit to guarantee their baby’s college fund.
And our oxygen thief’s cynicism actually works really well in this environment: he notices things that most other people are too polite or too embarrassed or too idealistic to mention. For instance: the gross imbalance that enables major charities to be absolutely huge (think of all the LA and New York charity balls!) is largely down to consumers and taxpayers. Which is to say, you and me.
Every ad agency likes to have a charity on their books for which they’ll pull all sorts of outlandish favours… There are tax concessions and write-offs. But it’s important which charity you affiliate yourself with. …For instance, a charity that raises funds to help addicts get off heroin isn’t nearly as reliable or photogenic or even pitiable as one that treats kids with AIDS. Adults with AIDS are no good. It could be their own fault. …Sorry, but it’s true.
Whoever this Dutch guy is, he’s clearly spent time in the States, because this is exactly how American public morality works. “Adults with AIDS are no good. It could be their own fault.” That bit really deserves to be quoted twice; it’s so cruelly accurate.
Supposedly, the main point of this book is how he gets his heart broken by a cruel bitch of a girl who does to him exactly what he did to all those other women, back when he was an alcoholic and a Bad Guy. And in many ways, that is a glorious trajectory. Aisling, the villainess, is a million times smarter and more ambitious than our narrator; she’s like a modern-day Becky Sharp. In fact, I’d have preferred that comparison to the Lolita one on the back cover (and it strikes me as weirdly distasteful, too, since Lolita is an underage victim of a creepy rapist, and Aisling is a fully autonomous vengeful goddess. You can hardly draw parallels between the two of them. Lolita was never a vamp; she was a kid.)
But to be honest, that story—the story of an asshole who gets his comeuppance—it’s not a new story. It’s not told, here, in a particularly new or exciting way. Don’t read Diary of an Oxygen Thief for the personal relationships. Read it for the distressingly bright light it shines on the way companies manipulate people: the ones who work for them, and the ones who buy the stuff they flog. If this book is “hipster”, and if “being hipster” now means “making people want to advocate the violent overthrow of capitalism”, then okay. I’m down for that.
Thanks very much to Poppy Stimpson at Corsair Books for the review copy. Diary of an Oxygen Thief was published in the UK on 25 August.