22 Junio 2017 11:30
The authorship of the enigmatic and controversial ‘Diary of an Oxygen Thief’ remains a mystery to this day
The Diary of an Oxygen Thief opens with this confession, which is cruel enough to fill us with loathing yet entices us to read on.‘I liked hurting girls. Mentally not physically. […] I loved the shock on their faces. Then the glaze as they tried to hide how much I was hurting them. And it was legal. I think I killed a few of them. Their souls, I mean. It was their souls I was after.'
This enigmatic - and purportedly autobiographical - work was anonymously self-published in 2006 in Holland. The author, known by only a series of pseudonyms, began distribution of the book by selling it in the street. He also started a campaign to viralise it on Instagram which, along with encouraging sales in a handful of bookshops, was the seed of its subsequent success.
Ten years later, Diary of an Oxygen Thief was a top-seller on Amazon and iTunes. The mystery surrounding its origins produced a special aura, which books released by big publishing houses find difficult to pull off.
The first-person description of misogyny, which is as extreme as it is self-conscious, holds an undeniable fascination: we have before us a testimony of someone who shows himself as an unfortunate wretch trying to patch up his own wounds by wreaking as much damage as possible in others. The story basically outlines a series of emotional abuses inflicted by a marketing executive, first in London and then in New York, and their consequences.
More than a novel, the book is a catalogue of horror, the narration of a succession of serial abuses, all aimed at women.
The author’s intriguing opacity, the truculence of his exploits, the ironic detachment of his tone were the perfect ingredients for readers to get both hooked and horrified in equal measure.Diary of an Oxygen Thief wasn’t sold, it wasn’t bought, it was trafficked.
This phenomenon should come as no surprise to us. Transformed into an ambiguous, cultish object, the book has generated a certain sense of communion among readers, as if it were a sacrificial rite. As we enter and stare into the human abyss we partake in a shared transgression.
That’s why it would be easy to say, as has been said of so many books, that Diary of an Oxygen Thief, more than readers, seeks out accomplices.
However, while the book does not want for any kind of collusion, it does urge us to be witnesses. In fact, after the thoroughly provocative initial confession, the narrator reassures us:‘But don’t worry, I got my comeuppance. That’s why I’m telling you this. Justice was done. Balance has been restored.’
Leaving us hanging in a kind of homeostatic limbo, he suggests that everything is forgiven, that we can temporarily suspend our judgement, park our morality and thereby view his acts without any kind of guilty conscience.
But, to what extent is this a deceitful invitation to relax, settle into our armchairs and allow ourselves to be touched by this seductive figure from whom, like his other prey, we feel safe?
He doesn’t wants accomplices, he wants victims. His tale is anthropophagic: it unfolds by feeding on other people, on the souls he is capable of devouring to repress his own suffering.
And his chosen method of hunting, as he explains in great detail, consists in a game of mirrors, in the construction of a specular labyrinth for his different victims. In other words, he reflects the longings and ideals of others, enrapturing them with the image of themselves.‘They say the sea is actually black and that it merely reflects the blue sky above. So it was with me. I allowed you to admire yourself in my eyes.’
As readers, we suffer a similar sense of confusion. It’s easy to keep the reassuring distance the narrator allows us, to accept that all debts have been paid and gather up the bait he has thrown us when it comes to classifying both him and his victims, some of them decidedly toxic, others more needy.
But the way the book is presented here does nothing more than sidestep the effrontary being narrated. Diary of an Oxygen Thief should not be read as the story of an errant exception, but as a vivisection of our hegemonic masculinity.
The main character is not a monster, an unequalled ‘serial killer’ of souls . There is nothing unique about him, but rather the book describes a guy who has been hurt and is using all the resources that our public culture affords him to humiliate, trample on and repress the women that get involved with him.
No possible absolution can come from the narrator’s suffering, nor from the fact that he is given his just desserts in the end.
The disproportion between the damage he inflicts and receives, as well as the existence of social mechanisms that allow the systematic abuse of women, prevents us from adopting that comfortably equidistant position we settle into in the first pages.
This is a book that reveals the psychological structure of male domination, only seen from the other side, from the top of the pecking order. The moral ambiguity of the story connects the narrator with Humbert Humbert or with the voices of the repulsive men that David Foster Wallace writes about in his books.
Hence (and this is more troubling still) once we have got over the initial shock (he enjoys hurting women!), we wind up giving credibility to his voice and downplaying the perverse game he exposes. We should not forget that male domination, as described by Bourdieu, is a relationship power structure which we all party to, not just abusers.
Reading Diary of an Oxygen Thief makes us aware of the extent to which we are willing to accept that order of things, and how easy it is for us to comprise this imbalance if we are assured that justice was done.
It matters little that before our eyes is unfolding a catalogue of abusive humiliation dished out by the very same aggressor who admits to having no regrets: ‘justice was done,’ we tell ourselves again and again, and go on reading.
Lest we forget: ‘They say the sea is actually black and that it merely reflects the blue sky above. So it was with me. I allowed you to admire yourself in my eyes.’