Books: The Deep Whatsis / Diary of an Oxygen Thief
Authors: Peter Mattei / Anonymous
Types of Books: Fiction, potentially asshole recovery manuals if taken somewhat seriously
Why Do I Consider These Books Odd: Eh, they aren’t that odd in and of themselves but considering them together shows me how enjoyable shitty people can be when they know they are shitty and just accept it.
Availability: The Deep Whatsis was published by Other Press in 2013 / Diary of an Oxygen Thief was published by Gallery Books in 2006 and you can get a copy of both here:
Comments: Analyzing these two books together, because one hits the mark with me and the other doesn’t, might lead one to believe that one of these books is somehow bad, or at the very least lacking. That’s not really the case. Rather, reading these two books around the same time showed me something very interesting about myself: I like unrepentant assholes. Don’t get me wrong – redemption arcs have their place and can be enjoyable, but after a while I tire of the trope of callow men with some measure of success deciding that their lives are empty and meaningless and that their chosen work is unsatisfying and that maybe, just maybe, they can be better men. If the catalyst for change is the presence of a manic pixie dream girl, all the better for the formula.
It’s jaded to think that this formula got hijacked from the early successful Palahniuk novels but, yeah, many books told from the perspective of a male protagonist who is sick of his immoral job, who meets an outsider woman and experiences a strong philosophical shift have the aura of Fight Club about them. I mean, it’s a common trope but perhaps I see it clearer after Palahniuk did it so much better. The Deep Whatsis doesn’t have a Tyler Durden twist and is almost 99% non-violent, but it follows the script and at the end left me feeling like I really needed the protagonist to burn something to the ground because otherwise this book is more or less just a version of several George Clooney movies, like Up in the Air, where the lovable rogue discovers he’s an asshole and learns from the experience and it’s all really heartwarming.
And that’s well and good to a point but sometimes you just want a self-aware asshole to suffer without trying to become a better man.
The Deep Whatsis is the story of Eric Nye, a “Chief Idea Officer” at an advertising agency. That job title is deceptive because what he really does is fire people and make it seem like a really good idea, like if someone ran Al “Chainsaw’ Dunlap, a sociopath if there ever was one, through a Park Slope hipster blender and poured him into a Jello mode constructed by Bret Easton Ellis, with Martin Amis consulting.
Just to be clear: The Deep Whatsis is not a bad novel. I enjoyed reading it. It was entertaining. But when I can easily describe it using so many specific cultural references, it’s hard not to see it as less than original in idea and execution.
Eric is a prick who is actively engaged in the worst sort of corporate cruelty. He’s the person whose back will be against the wall when the revolution is televised. He’s a stereotype – all the characters in this book are stereotypes, and that is why the redemption arc in this book isn’t particularly compelling. Eric Nye callously deprives people of their jobs with little concern for what will happen to them, he is part of a young, monied elite that spends carelessly, guzzles alcohol, drugs and name brands with a ferocious thirst, and he is very clever, handsome and witty. That he has a self-conscious awareness of his essential horribleness is supposed to make him more likable and it actually works because had Eric not known he is a piece of shit, this novel would have been unbearable.
But then enters an intern whose name I can never remember but I’ll look it up again in a minute. Her name really isn’t that important because she’s just a plot device. She cleans Eric’s pipes and he develops an obsession with her as he staggers through his job and social life, and, like when “Jack” encounters Marla in Fight Club, things begin to change for Eric. The impetus for change is unlikely because Eric knows very well he is a despicable human being who fires coworkers so rich people can get richer. He delights in the head games he plays with long-time employees whose lives and careers will never recover when he fires them. Sabine, the pixie girl he falls for, is a borderline personality case who evidently gives amazing blowjobs, is scattered, unstable, and her appeal is never really clear for the reader, but a novel like this cannot exist without a completely deranged and messy girl. The power of DBT-therapy drop outs who manage to captivate even the richest man who can attract the most attractive (and presumably well-medicated) women in the world is becoming such a common literary and cinematic trope that it shouldn’t annoy me as much as it does, but fucking Sabine marks a change in how Eric perceives himself and the morality of his life.
And without spoiling it too much, Eric changes and slides neatly from the role of anti-hero you love to hate into uncomplicated Earnest Man. It is what it is and had Mattei’s writing not been on the mark, the work of an equally self-aware author who clearly knows more about the advertising industry than I could safely absorb without needing someone to punch me savagely in the face, this book would have been just so much pablum, bordering on a romance novel with a male protagonist. Mattei’s prose reflects the glibness of the subject matter yet can also effectively evoke empathy for Eric when he has his long dark seconds of the soul. We need these bones Mattei throws us because navigating Eric Nye is difficult for those of us whose shirts are blue and whose blood has a lovely Red hue.
In a way, this passage best summarizes who Eric is at the beginning of this book. In this passage, he is explaining to a model he dated briefly and took to Barcelona why bullfighting isn’t unethical or cruel, internally mocking her disgust for the sport even as he hopes she’ll blow him again before he flies back to New York.
“Think of it as anthropology,” I said. “Think of it as a window into another world.” And I supposed it was another world, in the way that, well, consider the care and patience that a serial killer will take with the body of his victims, or a medical examiner with a corpse, there is something horrific about it and honorable at the same time, like a sky burial. And the bullfight is not at all a sport, it is a dance, a performance art piece that originated on Spanish ranches and farms, or so I read online although I may be making that up. The bull is going to die regardless because it is going to be slaughtered for food, and so the matador honors his meal by risking his life in the ring, finally terminating it while leaping in midair, his groin exposed to the bull’s horns. The whole thing was pretty gay but at the same time so undeniably deep I thought.
This is Eric summarized well. He knows that being paid bonuses that would easily pay the salaries of the people he fires and being okay with it is akin to being a killer, but even as he knows he is reprehensible he justifies it. Someone’s going to fire those people so why would he, the matador, do the dance and show his groin, and grapple with how unethical or “gay” if he doesn’t have a model to impress.
Eric’s asshole nature is pretty profound and that may be why his revelatory change because a flighty woman gave him good oral sex falls flat with me. He really is a prick and funny with it, too. His manic pixie dream girl asks him if he believes in karma and he begins imagining her in her natural setting:
The moment she says the word I picture her going all Namaste, up near the front of the yoga class, with her prayer hands, trying to get the eye of a male instructor, the one ten years younger and with a topknot. A topknot on a guy is like a sign on his forehead saying “I’ll go down on you for a really long time and make it seem totally unselfish but really I’m kind of worried that I’m gay.” So I try to look at her as if she is being overly sensitive, I get that, and appreciate it, but.
But even as I love passages like the one above, Sabine as a character and Eric’s transformation seem unlikely. Take this passage, where Eric is explaining his treatment of an employee at the ad agency, a 52-year-old woman he plans to fire. He considers her an “old horse that has run out of gas.” She senses she is on the chopping block and doubles down and works harder and takes on all assignments he throws at her. Seeing her scurry in misery as she tries to keep her job in an industry where menopausal women are completely devalued amuses Eric and he delights in creating bullshit assignments at the last moment and deliberately ruining all of this woman’s plans, forcing her to smile as he overworks her late into the night and on weekends at the last minute for no reason just before he kills her professionally.
I think she must have known that I was only playing with her, poking her to see if she would growl, which I was, and she never did, poor girl. At times I would think about the toxic effect I was having on her life and I would feel a form of compassion for her, and even begin to regret what I was doing. But that was not a feeling that was conducive to the financial health and well-being of the agency.
Without spoiling it too much I can say that Eric faces trouble because Sabine pokes him by reporting his dalliance with her to human resources – she was an intern at the company where he works and he was crossing several sexual harassment boundaries, though he didn’t know who she was when he first nailed her. But even facing the insecurity and injustice he heaped upon the people he fired, it’s hard to see how a man who deliberately tortures a woman he is about to fire, a woman he knows will likely never be able to get another job at her age in the same industry, can turn things around.
Eric is a prick. He’s an asshole. This is not an aberration in an otherwise normal man’s life. He didn’t torment the woman once. He made a game of it, and justified doing it because compassion is inimical to the corporate process. That’s important – for him compassion isn’t feeding the poor, rescuing a stray animal or campaigning on behalf of socially relevant politics. Nope, compassion for him is deciding not to strip people of their dignity as he strips them of their hope and financial stability and he ultimately decides that’s not worth doing if it doesn’t benefit his bottom line. He would need to get a bonus for not stripping people of dignity as he fires them. He would only stop toying with people if it somehow cost him money to do so. So it doesn’t seem like potential sexual harassment charges are enough to change a person who is both devoted to such foul behavior and enjoys the mental acrobatics of justifying such behavior.
Additionally Eric really doesn’t get that much of a comeuppance. He has too much money to fall as far as he should. Worse, we’re left with the notion that the girl who brought about his downfall may actually end up with him again at some point. There wasn’t as much schadenfreude as I would have liked because Eric ended up pretty much okay at the end.
Still, I enjoyed this book. I can’t help it. As formulaic as this novel is, as unlikely as Eric’s obsession for Sabine may be, as unlikely such a self-aware and committed asshole would change so quickly, Mattei’s snarky style saves the novel and makes it worth reading. The biggest problem is that I followed it up with a book about a genuine asshole, a sociopath whose only capacity to change comes in the form of deliberate sobriety, a man who faces his comeuppance at the hands of a better skilled sociopath and doesn’t learn a thing except that sometimes you’re the predator and sometimes you’re the prey. It is in comparison to that novel that The Deep Whatsis begins to suffer.
The anti-hero of Diary of an Oxygen Thief is a drunken sociopath who works for a British advertising agency. He accepts a transfer to an American branch in the Midwest and finds himself besotted with a lovely woman who is as much a sociopath as he is. The unnamed protagonist eventually sobers up and feels some regret at the way he behaved but at the end his transformation isn’t as clear cut to me as others. In fact, the entirety of the book is itself an act of revenge against the woman who puts the protagonist in his place, which doesn’t speak to a real transformation.
The back blurb of this book makes it sound a lot more lively and derivative than it really is, referencing Holden Caulfield and Lolita ravaging each other in McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. That isn’t the case at all. The narrator isn’t an earnest but mentally unbalanced kid yearning for a world where he fits in. The woman who wrecks his shit isn’t a slip of a girl who engaged in an adolescent-twisted form of feminine wiles because she was a victim of paternal predation. And there is very little in this book that harks back to the cocaine-fueled New York of the 1980s. Really, it’s a dank tale of a miserable man who meets a terrible person and even when he sobers up and finds his past behavior upsetting, he’s still the miserable man at at his core. He is essentially the same person throughout the book – he just stops abusing substances that limit his capacity to control the roiling viciousness that fills his heart.
That is what makes this novel so compelling – that viciousness. He can’t stop it as along as he is drinking and he engages in it even as he knows he is being cruel, that his cruelty is destroying women he sometimes genuinely cares about, and that his cruelty is destroying him, too. It’s a far different and more complex impulse than the cruelty that drives Eric Nye. Eric is a shithead because he’s got money, youth and looks on his side and his impulses are easier to understand. I think everyone, while we cluck our tongues in disgust, can ultimately understand why people do despicable things when money is at play. The sheer perversity that fuels the protagonist in Diary of an Oxygen Thief is less clear to the average person.
It’s almost delicious, the perversity. Watching his cat-like desire to torment his prey is fascinating, all the more so because the women he debases, insults and humiliates only become aware that they are prey when he downshifts into his role as the torturer. Sometimes he races out of the gate with his metaphorical dick in his hand, ready to wave it in their faces, but other times he builds years-long relationships that he trashes for reasons that are not clear to him. But he does it anyway. It’s a compulsion that he can only keep tamped down when sober and as he destroys others he destroys himself.
And he’s a magnificent bastard throughout the entire book. It’s cringy but compelling. Here he is discussing his plan to destroy the future married life of a woman he met in a pub.
A teacher from Ireland. Twenty-five-ish, A virgin. No, really. She said I had “an enviable command of the English language.” I wasn’t sure what I was going to do to her. The answer came to me when I slipped into her bed after cooking my special boned chicken, the preparation of which scared even me because it involved so much tearing of flesh from bone. She was engaged to be married. I hated her for that. It emerged in conversation that being a virgin embarrassed her. She didn’t want her fiance to find her still intact on their wedding night.
I didn’t know where to start.
This is some remarkably interesting writing here, and it’s depth like this that also sets this book apart from The Deep Whatsis. Though the chickens we commonly purchase at supermarkets to cook up are male birds, chickens are de facto female representatives, unless referred to specifically as roosters. Chickens are domesticated, easily controlled, associated with fertility due to all the egg-laying that fuels American diets. Women are broody, they are called “chicks,” and in the UK they are called “birds.” He is signposting something to the reader here, discussing chicken in reference to this Irishwoman. He says he is frightened of the amount of violence he inflicts on the dead birds he cooks but he really isn’t. He buys chickens to debone and cook because that is what he does with chickens, though he may not know exactly how he plans to consume the chicken carcass when he brings it home. This Irishwoman is no different. He saw her in the pub and she was already decapitated, plucked and in a cell-wrapped styrofoam tray. There were so many ways he could cook her up, the variety and possibilities of the harm he could wreak like all the chicken recipes in all the cookbooks. He is going to fuck with her because that is what he does with women. Cooking the chicken was just a rehearsal.
One gets the impression that this man would like to stop deboning chickens. More on that in a bit but mostly this man does what he does because that is what he does. He is a terrible human being made all the more terrible when he drinks. On some levels he does not like what he does to women but what else is he to do? He’s a prick. May as well ask a wolf to become a vegetarian.
So what does he do to this Irishwoman, whose virginity he despises? In the end she is just a tool through which he emotionally assaults a man he has never met.
Teach her some filthy tricks that would sow seeds of doubt in the mind of the groom?
This is all very Dangerous Liaisons here, but at least in that play the characters who wanted revenge had the belief, however erroneous, that they had been wronged and by using an innocent person as a destruction proxy they were still striking out at the person who harmed them. This protagonist barely knows the Irishwoman. He certainly doesn’t know her husband-to-be. He just wants to hurt people, no more and no less, and this perversity is far more interesting to me than the assholishness that Eric Nye engages in as he fires people and acts like a dick. Power corrupts and money corrodes – we expect rich people in charge to be terrible. But the guy who strikes up a conversation at the bar? Not so much and this behavior is absolutely fascinating to me. Seriously, this is some terrible shit right here:
Somehow it was obvious that I should leave her virginity intact. It became about him. How to hurt him through her. Anal sex? That would still leave her a virgin. Did she really want to lose her virginity, or was she bluffing? After a huge bottle of wine, most of which I drank from the bottle, I was supposed to sleep on the couch.
This I did until four, when I awoke with a stiffy and slipped in beside her, finding only token resistance. She really did want to lose it. But I didn’t like the idea of me as a sexual plumber. I wanted to be present on her wedding night.
Why? I asked that question often reading this book, and the only answers are: because he’s a terrible man and because why not.
I sipped and drank noisily, satisfied that her wedding night would be the first of many nights of sexual frustration as she tried to communicate her sexual needs to hubbykins without indicating a lack of prowess on his part. It provided an incentive to develop her very own “enviable command of the English language.”
One of the reasons this novel works so well is because Anonymous gives us so many clues that show us that while his protagonist is a piece of shit, he’s also not as in command of his shittiness as he would like to think. He is the one who must get plastered before having sex, not the Irishwoman. He is sedating his conscience, loosening up. He’s a prick, and it may even come as first nature to him to be one, but he requires fortification and depersonalization before destroying people. He’s presumptuous to an almost narcissistic degree. He knows nothing about the Irishwoman’s relationship with her betrothed. He knows nothing about the second man’s sexual skill. He assumes that his skills performing drunken oral sex on this uptight woman will undo her for the rest of her life, leaving her mumbling uneasy requests that will result in an offended and suspicious husband. There was a scene in Tao Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel wherein Tao Lin’s stand-in demands his hipster hangers-on shout at a family they encounter on the street. These grubby youngsters were convinced that all day long the family would wonder about these kids who yelled nonsense at them, spend hours mulling over what it all meant, keeping these tiresome children in their heads, unable to stop thinking about them. Anonymous’ protagonist has in him the capacity to destroy women he spends loads of time with – like Penelope, whom we will discuss in a moment but even she wasn’t as ravaged as the protagonist hoped – but as I read this book it became clearer and clearer that unlike Eric Nye, this man’s predations, while lacking motives outside of sheer perversity, were not as devastating as he hoped. Yet he was still the bigger asshole of the two, no doubt about that.
I’m not going to talk about Aisling McCarthy, the young woman who takes him down a peg or ten, who humiliates him as he has tried to humiliate others (and oh dear god the scene where she taunts him in a bar, in front of younger, better looking men, was so anxiety-laden yet delightful to read that I found myself tensing each time she stabbed his ego, almost like I was reliving some old humiliation I did not recall but was reenacting through muscle memory), because that is why you should buy this book. But lets talk about Penelope for a moment because she shows us that while the protagonist thinks he is a Very Bad Man, he’s really rather predictable and that even those whom he loves and tries to destroy see through him in the end.
It’s all very Bukowski, the way the narrator looks at his relationship with Penelope. They were together for over four years but in the end he couldn’t control himself.
…she’s the one I regret hurting the most. Why? Because she didn’t deserve it. Not that the others did, but she wouldn’t have left me if I hadn’t ripped her apart. And I needed her to leave me because she was getting in the way of my drinking.
Anonymous is going to show us Penelope’s reaction and I wonder if a man reading this book comes away with a different perspective than I have because Penelope isn’t crushed. Anonymous does such a fabulous job of showing us, or me at least, how there are two levels of experience going on in this short book. The protagonist is an unreliable narrator but that is open for interpretation because whereas I see Penelope as numbly enduring the end of a tiresome relationship, a man with a drinking problem and a staunch belief in his innate awfulness, some may see a brittle woman trying not to shatter apart when the man she loves attacks her. The beauty is, both interpretations work. This novel is written in such a manner that the Very Bad Men see what they want to see and those who have known and endured Very Bad Men see what they want to see.
So the narrator unleashes his Very Bad Man act on Penelope. It comes from left field. She has no idea of what he is about to do to her – they have been together for four and a half years. He feels like he hates her because she tolerated his bullshit. One night he came home terribly drunk and found she had left the door unlocked for him, becoming accustomed to his behavior, looking out for his excesses, anticipating his failures, and this angers him. He feels like she isn’t taking his awfulness seriously. He crawls into bed and forces her into tiring and tiresome sex and she begins to cry. But the next morning, as she gets ready for work, she is happy with what she sees in the mirror. He has not been able to harm her to the degree he prefers. Her crying in the night was not actual heartbreak. This will not do. He must destroy her.
He tells her he finds her boring, that he has to think of random women he sees on the bus and her sister in order to have sex with her. He tells her he cheated on her. He does his best to humiliate her and thinks he is succeeding because she nods numbly as he verbally assaults her and doesn’t fight back. However, even as he rids himself of Penelope, he cannot really stand the idea of her being free from him. The savagery of his assault, he thinks, will ensure Penelope will be his forever.
My logic went as follows: If someone hurts you, then you automatically want revenge. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, you want revenge. I thought if I hurt her enough, she would want revenge. Therefore I wouldn’t have to worry about never seeing her again. Because that is what I feared most: the fact that I was losing her. The question was how not to lose her for all time. I gave her some hints on how to successfully hurt me back.
Love in disguise
He tells Penelope she should call him at eight every night and not say anything before hanging up. He tells her she should stalk him by driving around and following him. He tells her to have some revenge fucks. He encourages her to come up with her own acts of revenge. He wants the intensity of hate to serve in the place of love. He miscalculates.
I had delivered this monologue with as much sincerity as possible. I was in earnest. I wanted her to want to hurt me back. This would be the new us: She looked at me. Into me. Those beautiful eyes glazed over all shiny like little blue bruises. And yet she looked stronger than I’d ever seen her. Unattached. Single. Out of reach.
That is what is so gratifying about men like the protagonist – women, too. They never bank on their victims growing tired of them, bored with them. Penelope never gives him what he needs.
Anyway, I have this to say. After Pen left, someone did call me at one point every night at eight for about two weeks. That really freaked me out. I’d answer and … nothing. Whoever it was would then gently hang up. The “gently” scared me more than anything else. Passionless.
Assholes never really understand that they just aren’t that important, in the end.
I attributed my misfortune to the guile and cunning of this mousy girl from Stratford-upon-Avon called Penelope. And while I flattered myself she’d seek revenge, I didn’t realize leaving me to stew in my own paranoid juices was revenge enough. I’d do worse to me than she could ever dream of achieving. When I was nearly sandwiched between a car and a motorcyclist, I was able to imagine she’d orchestrated the whole event. I suffered a crushed bicycle and a broken wrist. How delighted was I that she should go to such trouble in the name of romantic revenge against me.
She really must love me after all.
Penelope probably called him a few times, likely to make sure the oaf hadn’t died choking on his own vomit, and he had to deal with the realization she never dreamed of achieving any revenge. She was kind but was happy to be rid of him and he had to create so many revenge fantasies just to maintain his own sense of personal worth.
When I was first reading this novel, I became certain that Penelope was a road map of what the protagonist would later go through with Ainsley but that isn’t the case. No longevity of relationship, no shared passion, and at the end he wasn’t ready for it to be over, and his devastation is much worse than anything Penelope experienced. That’s all I want to say about that part of the book. You really do need to read it. I think, to paraphrase the Marquis de Sade, that this novel proves that cruelty we inflict on others really is the negation of the self, and that the protagonist’s self was negated before he met Ainsley. He had very little to lose in such an exchange, however satisfying it was to read, and therefore there could be no redemption arc.
We began the novel with an asshole and ended with an asshole and it was so delightful, watching this specimen act out his trauma, paranoia, cruelty and misery because he is so self-aware and he knows why we hate him even as we read him compulsively.
At the end, you can do far worse than to read both of these novels of Venal Men Getting their Comeuppance, though it occurs to me that neither may have really been served the justice they deserved – one had a soft landing and the other a soul vacuum that made it easier to endure shame. And though both novels have their problems, both are entertaining and well-written. One is a hipper George Clooney film, the other a Neil LaBute nightmare. I recommend both, the latter especially.