“I liked hurting girls,” tells us the Irish advertising creative in his unpardonably frank opening sentence. Straight to the point, without beating around the bush, a first person narrator takes us on a voyage into the land of his memories. Encouraged by his anonymity, he tells us about his romantic conquests and the pleasure he used to find in breaking innocent hearts – up until the moment when he falls for a girl whose ambition keeps him at the distance required to be her muse.
All the book lovers have recently wondered who the “real” Elena Ferrante is – her mysterious identity made journalists sniff around for a story, and had her readers wondering whether her writing style is similar to anything they recognise from somebody else. Even J. K. Rowling curated a pseudonym to pitch a book to publishers. When I was still a high-school kid and people used online forums more often than social media, the ones dedicate solely to writing have been shaken by a mysterious novelist who has delivered a novel but burned all the bridges behind them – the lawyer protected their identity, the people failed to find the author. Anonymity sparks curiosity – and it’s interesting that the author of Diary of an Oxygen Thief decided not to reveal his name. Was it autobiographical? Is it a promotional tactic? It doesn’t appear than anybody has solved that mystery. Nevertheless, even without that background knowledge which would make it so much easier to interpret, this short novel by an anonymous writer is an interesting phenomenon.
There’s no name or identity to the main character, an emotional vampire working in advertising. Instead, he lets the reader get into his head for the time measured by the words packed into 151 pages. Bravely sharing the stories of the times when he would win a girl over to dump her in a cruel way that guaranteed no return, he leads us through his life in London, Minnesota and New York. His emotional sadism, however, stops one day for the girl that might be the one – but she’s as dangerous as he is, and knows the rules of the game he plays all too well.
Let’s get it straight: you’ll love it or hate it – there will be no lukewarm feelings about this short book, no matter how cliché it sounds. You could argue that the narrator, telling the story in the first person, is a self-absorbed, miserable misogynist who constantly moans even about the good things that happen to him. To pick up this book, you must be sure that you can handle his overbearing negativity, provocative remarks and messy, sometimes non-linear memories. What will you get in return? A picture of a broken human who seems to need an honest conversation with somebody. It’s difficult not to think of it as an account of real events when you start reading it – the memories keep floating in the air, and the order in which they are recalled seem as natural as the flow of thoughts when you share a story with another person. Well, everyone gets heartbroken sometimes, there’s nothing humiliating about it.
The protagonist – if we dare to call him so – is not the most pleasant of all the literary heroes you’ll ever meet, granted. But his confessions have a notion of a grown-up Holden Caulfield, painfully honest, as sarcastic and controversial as expressive. He’s an adult, but he’s not mature emotionally. He’s lost his control over what he needs from life and how he responds to everything that happens to him. If you happened to like The Mighty Angel by Jerzy Pilch, you’ll pick up a handful of similarities between the story and style. You’ll lean in to hear from a broken creative you’ve met somewhere in a big city. He doesn’t care, and he wants you, the listener of his drawn-out story, to know that. He’s cheeky, he’s smug, and you become drawn into the stories of the girls who he abandoned, and want to hear about the woman who led him astray. If you ever read We Children From Bahnhof Zoo, you’ll also appreciate the realistic, sometimes shocking nature of his confession.
Reading Diary of an Oxygen Thief is like listening to a monologue of a man you pay attention to because you’re strongly fascinated by the story he tries to win you over with. He’s annoying. You’d slap him if he came up with another reason to pity himself. But if you’re empathetic and patient enough, you also try to understand his disordered thought patterns. You could imagine this is how an AA meeting looks like – both sides are anonymous: the narrator doesn’t have an idea who his readers are, and he reveals a lot about himself empowered by the lack of the name put to the real face of his struggle.