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Author: Will Wiles
Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: Fourth Estate 2012
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'Care of Wooden Floors,' a novel: from the off the book irked me, it didn't help by having 'A novel' on the cover as if a block of furniture. Was this supposed to be part of the title, or a sign of what Wiles had planned for his readers? Either way, it baffled me. I knew this was Wiles's debut novel due to last year's accolades - but I felt the author had overly-fiddled on the cover. As it so happened, Wiles has admitted influencing the cover's style and content. You mustn't judge a book by its cover, so I attempt to dust and polish it away from my initial impression.
Wiles's nameless protagonist, a writer, subsequently, had been invited to flat sit in an anonymous Eastern European city for an old university acquaintance named Oskar - he is a successful composer, apparently away, trying to deal with a messy divorce in LA. Oskar's artistic licence was a minimalist; finding the ties of being united with another entity via marriage resulted in unwanted baggage - Baggage that required to be left at LA's airport, so Oskar can endeavour composing 'Variations on Tram Timetables' (variation TWO) - notably, the first composition brought surprising rewards. What riches can be made from profound sounds collaborated together to be deemed as a valid composition, a musical piece to be reckoned with. Being a minimalist, a formidable amount of time was personally heeded for what some could see as little result, the audio result that could be easily missed by an untrained ear. Or worse still, go off track entirely. Oskar, is as stiff and wooden as his *fine French oak floor*. His human-side flooding out in notes; pedantic notes around his flat for Wiles's protagonist to pick up and decipher over - "WINE FOR YOU - ENJOY" - "PLEASE, YOU MUST TAKE CARE OF THE WOODEN FLOORS." Capitalised scripts as if for a Tannoy Announcements - You can guess what is to occur can't you. Imagine a Man Ray, real name Emmanuel Radnitzky 1940's modern art film of 'a slow train crash' and you get the picture - well, three hundred pages worth - although, one hundred pages too many. A case of over elaborate character portrayal of Oskar - if the character was an elastic band, it'll be so highly strung there would be a public health warning. PLEASE KEEP AWAY FROM THIS PERSON - if you have to approach him do so at your own risk; you can't miss him, he peruses about Tram Timetables listening for audio frequencies. Goodness knows why Oskar's wife moved to another continent, perhaps on the knowledge that high heels have an annoying tendency of scratching fine French oak floors, especially.
The novel is a good example of style over substance - a meagre "hello" to the world of scenarios. A gargantuan "HELLO" to the fickle world of the pretentious - where fads rise and fall on the whim of an editor's choice in the New Yorker, or Time magazine. Wiles imitation of Gok Wan is fascinating from a critical stand-point. Wiles obsession with the "styled moderne" ("moderne" spelt it this manner breaks the mould of pretentious text) brought on a migraine - his name-dropping of a Le Corbusier got more than a straight-lined mention, the by-product from an author who's an expert on the straight-lined interior component, floors being one of them. Wiles must have whiled away the hours tinkering with product descriptions which in the end didn't suite the cause. Have you heard of a kettle that phlegmed? - A gross connotation connecting the hot drink with the produce of a viral infection. Or maybe you can visualize an 'objet' adjacent to books and manuals on a shelf? Rhetorical question, however the term 'objet' requires a fair amount of imagination to envisage what he meant to be on the book shelf. Unless, of course 'objet' is a valid 'thought entity;' visible to the naked eye - then, I'm mistaken. Style over substance: hands up if you've witnessed a 'boiling mountain,' apart from a volcano? Wiles protagonist has, and it wasn't volcanic or splurging out lava either.
For an author who supposedly had some training in the history of art and design, I found myself cradling my head with angst when Wiles referred to the Renaissance artists evident in his 'Day One' chapter. "Only they felt the love of clouds and appreciation of their natural splendour, and having always felt separated from their true glory were moved to populate them with putti and seraphim." It is as if Wiles was adamant that he must include putti and seraphim into the script, so Renaissance artists were apple picked to serve the purpose. All artists for hundreds of years have 'felt the love of clouds' by them adding a plethora of angels and divine spirits doesn't make this particular group of artists love clouds more. Renaissance movement depicted new beginnings, Wiles misinterpretation goes further, to populate clouds with putti and seraphim, the correct term is putto not putti (putti is singular, putto is plural). 'Care of Wooden Floors' is littered with inaccurate terms. I've only highlighted several.
Other factors beggared belief was; why have two cats, when you possess the finest of French oak floors? Shossy and Stravvy are amusingly named with Russian composers in mind - Russian on an immaculate French oak floor is a recipe for disaster. You get the impression Oskar's nature attracts occurrences of the darkest kind and Wiles's protagonist galvanizes the occurrences - the pressure cooker syndrome of being housebound in a foreign land where you don't relate to the cities landscape, language, or cultural traits - this'll overtly in time twist the mind only Poe could literary manifest. The author is a meek pretender - the synopsis outline of the book no doubt should've been deployed as a short story. Instead the details lacked mustard and credibility and it comes from the major factor the author didn't research cultural facets closely enough. Tighter control is required on that front when Wiles writes his second novel 'Toxic Tourism' - (publishing date pending) - obviously taking note of comments that he writes about the ugly so well. Minuscule fragments of good coming from his exhaustive scripts of stark city landscapes.
Stir-craziness did not only embody the protagonist, I felt it too, while he nonchalantly plodded about at the local museum which Oskar had OCD jotted down for his flat sitters observation, one of many thousand of them. Orchestral orientated musings, profoundly outlining the chasm of character difference these two men had. University so-called friendships tend to be about 'when young and ambitious lives collide by chance under the umbrella of occupational education, what emerges from the social-experiment is a band of brothers / sisters, they incessantly remember their experiences' - a nostalgic 'living-in-the-past glue' is formed, stuck on your brain like an Oskar post-it note. Oskar and Wiles's protagonist's unlikely friendship is the tragic product of this dark fate.
The author should be deeply thankful to the BBC Radio who played an adaptation of the novel during Jubilee year - Indeed, a fortunate plug, during a time where frivolities was favored over good sound judgment. A helpful guide for the Oskars among you who have purchased a French oak floor - Otherwise look elsewhere for polish, I believe Lidl has offers.
When Oskar asks an old university friend to look after his apartment while he goes to attend to his divorce in Los Angeles, he clearly has some inkling that the property may not be looked after exactly as he would wish. Why else would he leave notes hidden around the flat outlining the action to be taken should the worst occur? The worst, it seems, would be damage to the apartment's pristine wooden floor and Oskar's notes stress the importance of acting quickly should anything be spilled on the boards.
The apartment is on the first floor of an old building in the heart of some unnamed eastern European capital city where Oskar lives with his two cats Shossy and Stravvy. Oskar is a composer best known for his work 'Variations on Tram Timetables', a piece inspired by the sounds of his native city.
The friend, a writer, is hoping to use the time to do some real writing. He wants to be an author but he earns a living writing copy such as recycling information leaflets for local authorities. The friend is in awe of minimalist Oskar and his successful organised life. His own life is a celebration of mediocrity and, aside from his impending divorce, Oskar's appears to be pretty perfect.
It should come as no surprise to learn that Oskar's fears are realised. It's only a few drops of wine but they might as well be a deluge. A few drops can't be difficult to remove, can they? No need to bother Oskar. Might as well go and do some sightseeing. Have an evening out with one of Oskar's friends. Won't hurt, after all there's plenty of time to think about the floor before Oskar comes back.
It's not that simple, of course. The problem snowballs with fatal results and still the friend doesn't let Oskar know what's happened to his beloved wooden floor.
Care of Wooden Floors has all the elements of a farce combined with a very, very dark streak. We know that the friend will damage the floor, we just don't know when and author Will Wiles keeps us guessing, building up the tension in a clever but subtle way. This is a novel that made me simultaneously laugh uncontrollably and gasp with horror. If the beginning had been outlined to me and then the outcome described I'd have said it must be an absurd story - and indeed it is - yet the way to story develops is entirely credible.
The story is told by means of a first person narrative through the eyes of the friend. I really admired in Wiles writing the ability to develop two very strong characters with minimal effort while keeping the story in focus. Through a series of flashbacks we learn how the unlikely friendship came about: the friend and Oskar are like chalk and cheese yet somehow have maintained this friendship since university days. The secondary characters, too, seem very real but it is the portrait of Oskar, who appears in the present tense only by telephone and through his notes, that really shines. There are hints of obsessive compulsive disorder in the character but when the friend ignores Oskar's requests to behave in a certain way in his home, you can't help but think his anxiety is more correctly annoyance as a result of other people being slack or selfish.
The unnamed city is almost a character in its own right. The friend knows nothing of the language, the customs and certainly not where to find someone who can fix the floor for him. It's a city I know well without knowing what or where it is; an amalgamation of those cities suddenly plunged into capitalism after years of being behind the iron curtain, a city where a night at the philharmonic seamlessly becomes a nightmare in a sex club and where angry cleaning ladies think they can be understood simply by shouting more loudly. I was reminded of my first hours in countries like Armenia and Georgia where everything seems alien and the writing is unrecognisable. Wiles does a fine job of capturing the way those cities can look familiar but soon reveal themselves to be hard work to the uninitiated.
I loved Care of Wooden Floors. It's a hilarious story about how something almost insignificant can snowball into utter disaster. It also says a lot about friendships with the ending revealing that the two men who believe they are friends actually know each other very little.
This is Will Wiles debut novel. I am confident that, if Care of Wooden Floors is anything to go by, there will be more to enjoy from this intriguing and innovative author.
Thanks to the publisher HarperPress for providing a review copy for www.curiousbookfans.co.uk where this review first appeared