Care of Wooden Floors

  • Will Wiles
  • New Harvest
  • 304 pp.

The unraveling of perfection begins with a red-wine stain upon a wooden floor in this comic fable.

Reviewed by Keith Donohue

If you take your comedy black and like your wit dry, you owe it to yourself to pick up Will Wiles’s debut novel Care of Wooden Floors. It is one of the funniest and cleverest books of the year.

On its surface, the story seems plain enough. A would-be writer from London accepts an invitation from his old school chum Oskar to house-sit his flat in an anonymous Eastern European city while he is away in the United States to work out a divorce from his American wife. Oskar has made a success as a pianist and a renowned composer of modern works such as Variations on Tram Timetables. Even from his university days, when he “traveled under a thundercloud of good taste,” Oskar had been fastidious to the point of obsession.

It comes as no surprise to the narrator that the apartment and all its accoutrements reflect that same austere nature. Nor that the instructions Oskar has left are excruciatingly detailed: how to feed the cats, to leave the piano alone, to let the housekeeper in once a week, and above all, let nothing damage the expensive, custom-made wooden floors. On his first night there, he accidentally spills some red wine.

The stain on the floor sets in motion a series of misfortunes that gives this novel its giddy pace. The cats are neglected, the piano is disturbed, and even the housekeeper becomes a problem. Every time the narrator leaves the flat on an excursion into the city, the recriminating stain awaits him upon return. Over the course of one week, he scrubs, he sands, he searches in books for a way to remove the blot, but his efforts make matters worse. The stain reminds him of Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart.” “But I was no murderer, I thought, and it would take a lot more than a tiny mark on the floor to drive me insane.”

But the stain will not let him rest. Kafka meets Buster Keaton as the story spirals into slapstick madness with accident after accident. Fatalities occur; bodies must be removed. With each of these mishaps, the narrator finds further notes from Oskar, as though he had predicted the crazed turn of events. Indeed it is through these instructions that Oskar’s true character is revealed. Signed with an “O” that is “hypnotic — a perfect circle, with no obvious beginning or end,” the notes uncover the neurosis, the hidden sexual predilections, and even the cause of the dissolution of the absent friend’s marriage.

The ruined floor becomes the leitmotif for understanding character, both the narrator’s carelessness and Oskar’s fussy regard for the surface of things. Ruminating on the radiating stain, the narrator observes the connection between Oskar’s music and his life: “He had to have everything perfect. He had to have this one kind of wood; any other kind would have been as ruinous as an incorrectly struck note. Everything had to be balanced, perfectly, always, on the edge of disaster, without the slightest margin for error. Wasn’t this kind of calamity inevitable, given enough time? Didn’t he realise that? His precious, delicate floorboards had their fate written into their absorbent grain.”

If there is a moral to this comic fable, it may well be in the way we choose to design our lives. As Oskar points out, “We make our rooms, and then our rooms make us.”

Will Wiles is freelance design journalist whose work has appeared in the British journals Icon, Cabinet and New Statesman, and the novel’s smart construction and design reflect that pedigree. His style is elegant and his humor finely honed. Care of Wooden Floors reads like a farce directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and the novel’s denouement will surprise even the most jaded readers.

This is just the kind of book you want to give to that special perfectionist in your life, that tyrant of good taste and order. Unless, of course, that person is you. If so, you need to read it and find the peace that comes through a little chaos.

Keith Donohue is the author of three novels. His latest, Centuries of June, will appear in paperback in November.

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