This review of Will Wiles’s Care of Wooden Floors appeared in the Telegraph.
‘It was a scratch and a minor stain. It was not a matter of life and death.” Thus the unnamed narrator of Will Wiles’s ingenious first novel, holed up in an anonymous Eastern-European city and four days into a week of entropically bad luck. Much worse is to come. Tasked with looking after the apartment of Oskar, an old university friend, the hapless English protagonist arrives among canals that seem filled with tar and buildings that resemble damp grey sugar cubes. Oskar’s flat is a pristine refuge, sparsely appointed with impeccable furniture, steel kitchen surfaces, intimidating art books and its owner’s gleaming (and fateful) grand piano. Oskar – musician, émigré, minimalist aesthete, composer of Variations on Tram Timetables – is in LA, getting divorced. The narrator has merely to obey the many notes his fastidious pal has left behind and all will be well.
By the fourth day, he has allowed one of Oskar’s cats (they’re named Shossy and Stravvy) to perforate the leather sofa and, more worryingly, has spilt red wine on the flat’s exquisite wooden floor. Things spiral from here, “on a vector of neglect, pointed at inevitable chaos”. A logic of slow-motion slapstick, with bouts of horror, takes hold. As the narrator notes, his story has something in common, in terms of manic sensitivity and underfloor secrets, with Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. Following a drunken night out with a local friend of Oskar’s, he accidentally offs a moggy with the piano lid and causes a second vast red-wine stain to flower on the kitchen floorboards. When Oskar’s cleaner turns up to survey the carnage, events take a more violent turn.
If Wiles’s plot sounds like sitcom stuff – Fawlty Towers as read, perhaps, by the pratfall-loving Freud of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life – be assured that Care of Wooden Floors offers other pleasures. They are not so much in the book’s wry thoughts on interiors (Oskar: “We make our rooms, and then our rooms make us”) as in Wiles’s deft and precise descriptive asides. In the opening pages, an airport arrivals hall is “a compressed wedge of brown neon, sweat and stress”. On his arrival in the city, trams “informed the air like the lowing of cattle”. In a flashback to student days, the narrator’s Anglepoise lamp “shone cyclopically like the fire brigade lights at a midnight motorway catastrophe”.
Wiles is also a design critic, and his narrator (though he balks at Oskar’s paranoid refinement) cannot help casting the world in aesthetic terms. He shudders at the horrid typeface in Oskar’s porn magazines, and casts a cold eye over the unfortunate cleaner: “A life of poor diet and hard work had turned her into a huge callus.”
This tone does not always succeed. Stranded in a ruined post-industrial district, the bumbling hero strains to convince that an abandoned swivel chair truly looks like “a Dalek rape victim”. A section in which he bashfully excuses himself from a pole-dancing club feels a touch too close to touristic cliché. And an editor ought to have spotted the repetition, albeit reworded, of a reflection on the soothing tedium of 24-hour television news. But for the most part, Wiles’s farcical plot (in its essence, a staple since at least the days of silent comedy) is sharpened by his aphoristic asides. This is a smart and polished debut.