Oxygen is a breathtaking novel—literally. All the characters are in some phase of oxygen deprivation. The play Oxygen by the Hungarian exile Lazlo Lazar is being translated by Alec Valentine, who cannot struggle free of his childhood demons enough to take any independent action. Alec’s television actor brother Larry is similarly in a claustrophobic situation caused by debt and a series of bad choices, and Alice, the mother of the two brothers, is literally dying of her inability to breathe—she is in the terminal stages of lung cancer. Moreover, Lazar’s play is about miners who are trapped and dying of suffocation, losing hope in their tunnel while those outside try to rescue them.
The novel tells what happens as Larry returns from California to the family home in England and the Valentine brothers plan and produce what will surely be Alice’s last birthday party. A parallel narrative describes Lazar’s adventures as he tries to make up for a long-ago failure in courage by aiding revolutionaries in a current cause. The novel cuts neatly back and forth between the two stories.
Londoner Andrew Miller’s first two novels won prizes and awards, and this novel was a Booker Prize finalist. This novel indicates that his awards are well deserved. The neat and never obscure interweaving of the lives in Oxygen rivets the reader’s attention, and the many references to oxygen, air deprivation, difficulty breathing, etc. are subtle enough to season the narrative without overwhelming it.
This precise, insightful, claustrophobic novel keeps its strands neatly defined as it approaches a strange but appropriate open-ended conclusion that will leave the reader gasping.