Walter Wadas: employed at Harvard Ubiversity Art Museums; frequent contributor to Lambda Book Report
The leap from the eighteenth century to 1997 would not seem to be easy, but that's what Andrew Miller has assiduously gamboled with his latest novel, “Oxygen.” Miller has been justly praised for his period novels, “Casanova in Love” and “Ingenious Pain,” two densely theatrical fictions in which the historical epoch — the 1700s in both cases — has an often claustrophobic presence.
“Oxygen,” in contrast, has breathing room. The plangently particular characters with their thickly textured lives rich in anecdote and incident are here; but in “Oxygen,” the setting is the late twentieth century; and the slanted, akimbo plotting with its spare and patchy joints will not carpenter to every reader's satisfaction.
At the center of the new novel is Lazlo Lazar — former Hungarian freedom fighter now residing in Paris. Lazar is as well a playwright and a homosexual, and he lives in a fourth floor apartment on the rue Delambre with his lover and business manager, Kurt Engelbrecht.
On the evening Miller introduces him, Lazar is preparing escalopes de veau en papilotte, topping and tailing the shallots with two clean strokes of his black-handled Sabatier knife. His recipe calls for both "delicacy and good timing," so Lazar handles with aplomb a churlish dinner guest, the expatriate American abstract painter Franklin Wylie, who fires "a small black Baretta .32 with a snub barrel" at his host's bookshelf."'What did you hit? demanded Lazlo. Franklin pointed a weebling finger … The bullet was embedded in the spine of a book of poetry…. [Lazlo] drew the volume out and showed it to them. "You have shot Rilke," he announced. 'The act of a fascist.'"
Miller arrives at this crisis in a sidestepping, almost gerrymandered way. Lazlo Lazar has a new play — titled Oxygene — in French, which his assistant has contracted to Alec Valentine to translate for production at the London's Royal Court Theatre.
There's much that's dispiriting about Alec. "Alcohol did not agree with him and he had never learned to smoke." He shutters his London flat and heads to the West Country, where at "Brooklands" — his family manse — he will attend his mother Alice, who is dying of terminal brain cancer. Valentine mater is hooked up to 02.
In California, yet a third Valentine is in a funk. Older brother Larry, once a television star, has wallowed into drink, drugs, debt and porno films. Leaving alienated wife and kleptomaniac daughter behind, he hunkers to England to his mother's deathbed.
Having lost their sense of invulnerability — as most of us do sometime after adolescence — Miller shows Alec, Larry and Alice Valentine arriving at the disturbing realization that there may be nothing to take its place but the not very welcome sense of their own mortality. Regret and disappointment — or worse—seem the Valentines's inevitable lot, as they must be for the three miners trapped below ground in Lazar's new play, who gradually succumb to asphyxiation.
For Lazlo Lazar there may be —one cringes at the gauche pun, but—a last gasp. If death results, there will nevertheless have been a redeeming mission. During the Hungarian uprising of 1958, young Lazlo was in love with a comrade, Peter Kosary. When Lazlo escaped and survived, Peter did not. Despite his successes and comforts, loss and guilt have since then haunted the playwright. Now, almost 40 years later, a reckless opportunity to assist some Albanian exiles conspiring to fight the Serbs in Kosovo is presented to the 70 year old Lazar. He accepts it.
Lazlo Lazar has the — as poet Robert Lowell wrote of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw — "peculiar power to choose life and die." Whether Lazar dies at the end of Oxygen Andrew Miller leaves ambiguous. What's certain is that in Lazlo Lazar Miller has created one of contemporary fiction's most complex and compelling gay characters.
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