With compassionate intensity, British author Miller explores the ostensibly entangled lives of four people struggling to slip the bonds of their several obsessions and obligations (and thus “breathe” freely).
Unlike its predecessors (Casanova in Love, 1998, etc.), Oxygen has a contemporary (1997) setting. The action takes place on three continents: in England, where widowed Alice Valentine is slowly succumbing to cancer, patiently attended by her son Alec, an unmarried translator; in San Francisco, where Alec’s brother Larry, a popular TV soap-opera star, attempts to finance a trip home to be with their mother; and in Paris, where Hungarian émigré Laszlo Lazar, a successful playwright and part-time lecturer at the Sorbonne, lives with his devoted young lover Kurt. What (tenuously) connects the Valentines to Lazar is Alec’s employment as English translator of the latter’s new play Oxygène, a depiction of three men trapped underground in a collapsed mine. Miller is a graceful and imaginative writer, and he quickly elicits our interest in Alec’s carefully sustained passivity (which seems to have developed from his fearful relationship with his intermittently brutal late father) and in Alice’s complex reminiscences of her youth, marriage, and motherhood. Even better is the characterization of Larry, drifting along in an unhappy marriage and into porn films (co-starring with a brainless stud who lists his “influences” as “Marky Mark. Schwarzenegger. Sir Olivier of course”). What, the reader may well ask, has all this to do with Laszlo’s reluctant participation in a mission to Budapest as part of a plot concocted by Albanian Serbs against the regime of Slobodan Milosevic? The curious surprise ending suggests another of several ways in which cramped, stifled humans require, and use, oxygen—but does not convince us that Laszlo, Alec, Larry, and Alice are otherwise linked in any meaningful way.
Consistently interesting, but it doesn’t add up to much. Miller does seem more at home in the 18th century.