Changing lessons

Like a breath of fresh air, Andrew Miller’s Oxygen unconsciously draws in life’s sustaining elements. The book’s sparingly drawn characters stumble through individual destinies that intersect without engaging, offering an illustration of this concept: Even when air quality is less than ideal, without thinking, we continue to breathe.

Revisiting 1997 through four central characters, the novel projects a raw history unfiltered by sentimentality. A minor diversion from Miller’s previous works of historical fiction, Oxygen creates a stunning living history: survivors retelling significant personal and political changes while offering a peculiar reassurance that there is something heroic, something life-sustaining, in the ability to face failure and go on anyway.

Oxygen is the story of Alec and Larry Valentine, two brothers faced with their mother’s rapid decline and imminent death. It is also the story of the mother, Alice, and of exiled Hungarian playwright Laszlo Lazar. Although their trajectories cross, each character is defined almost entirely by supporting characters in their isolated subplots.

There are no tender moments between the Valentine brothers, two men whose lives embody a lifelong rivalry in direct opposition to one another: Alec sequestered and alienated, Larry irresponsible and over-reaching. There are no tender moments between the mother and her sons. Alice is intolerant and suspicious of her one doting son and emotionally distant from her first son, whom she has favored since the birth of the second. Although Alec, in control but never in charge, is translating the exiled writer’s latest play, none of the Valentines actually encounters Laszlo in the flesh. Still, there is tenderness in the telling, unity created in the intersections.

The characters’ stories are told in unison from a place where each is able to stare down his or her failing and say, “So what?’ A place where “I will change,” begins to sound like “I want to change, but I can’t.” A place where, in solitude, Alec rants about Larry’s shortcomings only to discover that if Larry, by some miracle, reformed his screwed-up ways, Alec would be unable to define himself. An understanding that one may acknowledge the past but may not change it is the only self-help this novel has to offer.

In Oxygen, infused with a delightfully dry humor, tenderness falls between the lines at times. Alice, trying to understand “artistic differences” as the basis for the discontinuation of Larry’s starring role on a popular American soap opera, comments that “it wasn’t a particularly artistic show.” The single strand of humanity that ties these characters and their stories together is the strand of frailty, a weakness in all that prevents them from doing the right thing when the opportunity presents itself. For example, Alec finally has the chance to become intimate with a woman, but he waits to masturbate after she leaves. Neither son is able to summon the courage necessary to comfort the other or his dying mother. Regret as an inevitability of life is solidified in Alice’s recollection of her inability to respond to her father’s sole description of war, “They used flamethrowers, you know.”

Ultimately, it is Laszlo, “possessor of a mind that stares at itself,” asking his lifelong friend and painter why he never attempted to paint the happiest moment in his life, who reveals the importance of breathing through life’s more challenging moments. The friend responds, “If I’d painted it, I would have changed it, so I left it alone.” And so it goes, the futility of analysis. Even if you understood, would you, could you change?