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On the Trail of an Oxygen Thief

© Hugh BurckhardtGuerilla Marketing
* “Hurt people hurt people” and, given that one can’t properly approach such a cold-heartedly-unabashed piece of a bastard’s narcissistic (if self-servingly myopic) tell-all pot-boiler without adopting a handful (or all) of it’s affectations, perhaps you’ll let me know when this starts to hurt.

Thanks – no, really, it means a lot… yeah, I’m scraping the bottom for some kicks, glad you noticed.

Spoiler warning: There are no spoilers in the first two sections – nothing that isn’t clumsily alluded to or even stated outright in the first chapter (or on the back cover in adjective + noun + verb + noun* format). This is not a book that can be spoiled – not for the casual reader, anyway.

Would it spoil your experience, reading Diary of an Oxygen Thief, to know it has been described as “just like having a conversation that I couldn’t interrupt” or that you’ll love it if you’re a fan of the continuous fourth-wall-breach variant of Pavlovian conditioning? Probably not (dirty, filthy, masochist, you).

Would it take all the fun out of the plot to tell you that you’ll keep seeing the same jokes play out time and again… and again? No, that’s the point. Read the first page if you don’t believe me.

Would knowing that the jokes – practical, at times, and sardonically introspective at other times – are little more than an invitation (diegetically or, if you swing that way, extradiegetically – from the safely transgressive-in-anonymity author) to participate in an exercise in paramasturbatory catharsis prevent you from sitting down and reading the bloody thing? (…and, in doing so, join the author in avoiding change…) Of course not – if you pick it up, this wank’s most certainly just for you. (In much the same way this post is – you guessed it – all about me. Yay me.)

Speaking of jokes – did you hear the one about the abusive, narcissistic scumfuck who expected to con you into reading – or, worse, buying – his book? (Har har)

Oh, you wanted to know how I ended up reading it? I’ll get to that – just a minute here – let me preface this steaming pile of cynicism with a disclaimer: the views expressed below are not necessarily anyone’s; any resemblance to any views of any persons living, dead, or yet-to-be living or dead is purely coincidental.


Now, let’s get to the heart of this shocking true story of self-loathing disguised as misogyny disguised as self-loathing and commercialist fame-whoredom disguised as masterful self-deception disguised as revelation. (Don’t ignore me: I’ve got a lot to say and I’m using small words so you don’t have to hurt your head thinking too hard – it’s not easy, never easy, ‘cause I’m complicated and therefore worthy of your interest – better listen here, elsewise damn you/me/whatever)

I. Anonymous: What’s not to loathe?

Oh, right – was supposed to tell you how I ended up reading this thing.

It’s not a particularly involved story (you can skip it, all mostly irrelevant – pass on by the next few paragraphs if that’s your preference) but I’m not proud to tell you all about it so I will, of course, get right to that.

Diary of an Oxygen Thief was published in 2006 but I (maybe that should be more of a bold-face capital “I”, same as Important, same as Identity, same as in “I’m the only one whose Identity is Important in this narrative”, maybe I should underline that so it’s easier to see which statements should be the most interesting) didn’t have an inkling of this short book’s existence until a week ago when a woman who I found interesting – on a dating site that I found horribly tacky – recommended it. (“Which one?” – well let’s just say I’m not material, nor am I bored/stupid enough to be scrounging at – fair? Oh, you want to know which woman? Quit prying, she can out herself in the comments section if humiliation-by-proxy tickles her fancy.)

Seizing upon the opportunity to read an attractive stranger’s book recommendation (oh yeah, I knew how this was going to turn out – like yourself, curiosity compels me to find out just how bad things can get) I picked up a copy, read it over the course of a couple days’ free time, and realized that (the horror) this attractive stranger probably intended the book as some kind of shibboleth for picking out the assholes – guess we’ll see whether the goal is to keep ‘em or cast ‘em off (either way, watch me write a book about it… thinking something about amphibians and optics for the title).

Cute game, right? Well, I’m up for it (if not prematurely soiling myself over its very existence). Mouth: slavering. Claws: out. Pants: changed.

Things could (will) get filthier so, before they do, let’s get a few things straight: whoever wrote this book took a few scant precautions against being easy to pick out in a crowd… and then, unless photographic evidence is some kind of clever ruse, promptly failed miserably to stick to ‘em. Maybe he figured that being a bastard who changed his ways wasn’t such a bad thing after all – maybe he ate his own (“mmm delicious”) dog food and believed he was one those bastards, changed man, shit-eating grin and all.

Here’s what we know about this fellow:

Exhibit A: Yeah, see, it was this guy! Mum and Da didn’t give a toss, eh? Real nice job with the face paint, there.

Exhibit A
Yeah, see, it was this guy! Mum and Da didn’t give a toss, eh? Real nice job with the face paint, there.

  1. Male (plot point, see Exhibit A)
  2. Irish (probably not faking it)
  3. Advertising exec (possibly faking it so an overly-enthusiastic review like “It’s Mad Men meets Fight Club!” could be foisted upon the world)
  4. Abused as a child (the extent of which is debatable, but anyone can come off as abused if it suits his or her sentiment)
  5. At the beginning of the story: liked to start fights; now likes drinking and hurting women (they don’t fight back)
  6. By the end of the story: liked to start fights/get drunk/hurt women; now “capable” of falling in love, likes to write all about it (we’ll get to why this isn’t noteworthy soon enough)
Exhibit B: Write all about it and get paid, that is.

Exhibit B
Write all about it – and get paid.

He doesn’t think particularly highly of anybody, including – but especially – #1 (or so he says, implying that his own existence is worthless, the titular “oxygen thief”)…

… yet here he is, in all his self-effacing glory, cracking deadpan puns about word pronunciation with a speech impediment and poking just-a-little fun at how witty he must be (oh, and you can laugh right along too, now, reader) with running jokes… all of which can be summed up in a word: “pithy” (if we’re talking about how thith authorial contheit maketh me feel and we happen to have an incurable lithp).

Whatever else it may be, this tale is not about a man who has changed his ways: this is the two-dimensional (time, loathing) narrative of a man who has changed how he thinks about his ways… and let’s not even get into his advertising campaign – no, not the ones glossed over in the story – anyone can anonymize theoretical campaigns that never aired and talk about the view from an NYC office building – let’s take a look at the principled, measured, and subtle guerilla marketing techniques he’s selected to hawk his book:


Exhibit C: “See, you can afford it now!”

Now that introductions are out of the way and I – revealing myself to be one who’s certainly one-enough-to-know-one – have sounded the narcissist alarm (too late, yeah, always too late and maybe $19.99 short) and we can forget some – or all – of that and get into why you should most-assuredly read this story (and read it again, if you didn’t pick this up the first time) to learn how to make a lot of noise and get a lot of precious, delicious, self-affirming attention without improving upon your shitty self-concept in the least. Cool trick, right?

II. Self-love will eat its self.

Look, you read the first page – you already know that Aisling (maybe you didn’t read the story so you didn’t know her name… now you do, doesn’t change anything) breaks Mr. O2  Thief’s little heart. Well, he wants you to know that, anyway.

It’s really important that you know that for one reason, best explained by someone far better with words on such matters than I:

“Immature people falling in love destroy each other’s freedom, create a bondage, make a prison.”
AKA Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh
AKA Chandra Mohan Jain

Non sequitur? Hardly – doesn’t make for much difference if the object of one’s affections happens to be staring back from a reflecting pool (and some might go so far as to say that reflections and shadows are all there is to love, after all).

Let’s trace back over the script behind this grime-and-rose-tinted biopic and, instead of panning the details that were intended as an authenticity-building backdrop to the story’s supposed moment of clarity – you know, the one after the moment of clarity that lead to the AA meetings (there’s probably a clinical term for people who find themselves stumbling over epiphanies regularly, right? Epiphany: They all like cake.) – let’s zoom in for a closer look at the all-too-important motif that guarantees we’ll see a sequel.

Here we go in something like chronological order:

Formative Years

My father was shaving. I wanted attention and tried something like, “If you don’t blah blah can’t-remember, I’ll never speak to you again.” Then slowly, very slowly he leaned down with great emphasis. The cream-covered face larger and larger as it neared mine. And from under this comical mask came the three little words that meant so much. “I don’t care.” (pg 43)

Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please for a brief announcement: you shouldn’t care either.

Post-Alcoholism “Minnesotan Period”

I knew immediately that my dad was dead. […] He was dusted, dead and buried with a day to spare and, to my shame, I was back at work the Monday after. (pg 49-50)

… but it wasn’t shameful enough not to mention – in fact, let’s draw attention to that shame (or lack thereof). How ingratiating.

I was cursing myself for having created these circumstances. If it was happening to someone else I would have approved and even wished him well, but because it was me I couldn’t bear it, as if I were miscast in my own life. (pg 68)

Ah, see, we are making a movie here… (know anyone – er… anyone who’s loaded – that might want to buy the rights?)

I have to tell you about something that happened the first Christmas after Da died. My mother and I were sitting in the kitchen […] in shock; her from the fact that her husband of forty years was suddenly missing (she told me she had a dream where they were on holiday and she couldn’t find him) and me from… (pg 74)

Sounds like she’s afraid of being left all alone – how fortunate she had the company of her loving son, yeah?

Autobiographical Notes from the Editor

The more they confided and invested in you, the deeper the shock and the more satisfying the moment in the end. So, I’d be told of their dog’s habits, their teddy bear’s names, their father’s moods, their mother’s fears. (pg 17)

Hey, weren’t you just saying something about… oh.

Maybe I was emulating the only relationship I’d ever had by gaining trust and then breaking it abruptly. Do with it what you will. (pg 44)

What, exactly, does one do with such a statement?

This is my therapy. I’m too fucked up to go and see a therapist and to be honest, I wouldn’t trust him anyway, would I? (pg 58)

See where the daft bastard is going with all this? What are you supposed to do/be doing here, reader?

Love and hate may be polar opposites but they exist on a spectrum separated – in either direction – by indifference, all of that being mediated by one’s awareness thereof: beware the things lurking at the bottom...

…best beware the things lurking at the bottom…

Those capable of inconsolable self-loathing are equally, perhaps counter-intuitively, but equally able to become enamored of themselves in grandiose self-love: while they’re more likely to opt for the destructive, clingy, prison-style type, they’re nonetheless quite capable of reversing the polarity on loathsome to shocking levels of conceit. (“Did I mention this lurid book about what a scumbag I used to be is only $19.99..? Love me or hate me, it’s your lucky day!“)

He’s laid out the foundation of his game – his script, his rules – and you’re expected to nod your head… maybe (who are we kidding “maybe”, rube?) by the end of it you take his side. Maybe your lines play out something like this in his head:

“He’s had such a hard, disappointing childhood. He’s made such progress. He trusts me enough to confide in me over a trained professional. This is the kind of profound insight into the human condition that I crave. I’ll just have to buy his next book.”

Good news, imaginary reader: “writer of underground cult classic DIARY OF AN OXYGEN THIEF retools his advertising skills to seduce women online … Dazzling, daunting and darkly hilarious CHAMELEON ON A KALEIDOSCOPE is a spectacular indictment of modern media and our increasing reliance on it.” – buy it now at – all major credit cards accepted – only $18.99 (if you’re the forgetful sort, expect to see this ad again on a $20 bill).

This is the very foundation of ego preservation, the epitome of letting others decide whether shame is to be felt, and the height of folly for any so foolish as to be suckered into another round of the game, but hopefully that’s just…

III. More of what you already knew.

Remember those impassioned spoiler alerts? This isn’t one of ‘em. It’s time to discuss the denouement and, if you want to draw your own conclusions, you may as well come back later.

“Still reading? Good.” (pg. 113)

Welcome to Round Three: You’ve seen what he does, you’ve seen how it’s done to him, (wherever he seeks/allows it) now you’ve been invited to let it all play out again (and, this time, you get to play).

What an opportunity! Lucky you.

Our Byronic hero’s abridged struggle with alcoholism and psychologically abusing women (okay, pedantic-types, he did admits that he once punched a woman, as well – but he took a beating for it so it’s no big deal, alright? He said so himself.) was covered by page forty-six when he announced that he was a successful advertising executive (“My name is still known.” … humble gent) – “all” awfulness exposed, this leaves one hundred and three pages to backtrack on what a horrible person he is by hinging his redemption upon what all he went through when he let his guard down and gave way to some deep-rooted infatuation.

Reformed now, upstanding citizen, paid his debts to society. Look at our boy, he’s falling in love like it’s genuine now.

Do you see? All better now.

Do you see? “FINALLY CURED!”

Ah, but wouldn’t you just know it – it took forty-three pages to wind things up and twice as many to finish reeling ‘ya in… and you know that the hook is in – it’s supposed to be in, anyway – when he switches to the second person narrative (pg 135-136) and makes with the proclamations of hurt as they happen to you (you’re supposed to get your feet in his shoes and he’s telling you as much, sucker).

How humiliating – our boy was toyed with (didn’t you feel it?) but – and this is important, because this is what you were promised all along right up to the ol’ switcharoo – not broken (any more, really).

So there you have it, he’s done toying with others or allowing himself to be toyed with as a means of acting out that whole emo kid narrative – said so himself from page one, didn’t he? It’s safe to love him now.

… except that it isn’t.

If this gets published then the likelihood is they won’t publish her book of photo-essays because her methods were exposed. Or if they do, then at least I’ll get the first word in […] If you are reading this, then it not only got published but now I’m working either on my next book or the screenplay for this one. Congratulate me. (pg 149)

It’s just business, facing the merchandise, preserving the façade. Congrats, asshole.

Maybe you’re getting a better picture of what playing the part of the scorned lover (or are you playing the bastard, now that you’ve been confided in?) is like, but the O2  Thief doesn’t want your air or even your love… your attention and then your confidence (either of which mean your money) will do.

He’s so refreshing, so honest, (even if he did write himself out of any meaningful redemption by claiming his goal in getting published was revenge) … if you’re like those who drop a positive review, those who buy it, you’ll also be buying his next book.

Want to bet it’s decidedly not about being a decent person?

That’d be a lovely sentiment… but there’s no market for it or, if there were, writing it would be a trick this old dog has yet to learn.

Categories: Literary Criticism, Pop Culture.

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5 Responses

  1. I’m not reading this shitty book and there is nothing you can do about it, so you will never see my comments on this post. Good bye forever.

  2. @Nachlasse – Way to go stealing the spotlight w/o managing to say anything, drama queen.

  3. Here you go, operator.

    And Nach did say something. He used a comment on this post to say that we’ll never see his comments on this post. He just didn’t say anything meaningful, which is a typical symptom of PoMo-itis and advanced LastMan-ism.

  4. @Nachlasse, you mean, we’ll never see a comment other than this one?

    @operator, Is that a meta-comment in relation to the piece at hand?

    It’s somewhat depressing to read about the lengths the author went to in order to avoid change, particularly since he is so obviously aware of the need for it. I tend to think of the ego in evolutionary terms, whatever has survived this long must have some serious tricks up its sleeves. An illuminating if painful example, operator.

  5. @Guy – Hmm, coincidentally I’m doing research around LastMan-ism and I’m not sure why non-meaning has anything to do with the Last Man. Feel free to include sources if you’d like; I’d be grateful for the response when you have the time of course :)

Got insight?