Care of Wooden Floors

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Care of Wooden Floors
Will Wiles
New Harvest, October 2012
304 pages
$24.00

In Will Wiles’ debut novel Care Of Wooden Floors, an unnamed narrator is invited to mind an empty apartment in an unspecified Eastern European city. Upon his arrival the narrator discovers that his friend, Oskar, infamous at university for tidiness and insistence on order, has left notes all over the apartment to guide his visitor’s behavior, including suggestions as to which orchestral performances the narrator will most benefit from attending. Most forceful in those notes is Oskar’s insistence, “PLEASE, YOU MUST TAKE CARE OF THE WOODEN FLOORS.”

As he continues with precise instructions for tending those floors, we know damage is inevitable, and the driving question becomes not what will happen but how. Oskar’s apartment, where “Taste and money had met in the crucible of this space and sublimed,” is as clean and orderly as the man himself—who has found considerable success as a composer of precise minimalist music, including Variations on Tram Timetables. The narrator, meanwhile, has occupied his post-university life writing such local governmental brochures as Bin and Gone: How, What, and When to Recycle. A hallmark of his work—and his life—is the unquestioned creeping in of error.

A premise pitting opposite personalities against one another in a fragile space (even with Oskar represented in absentia by his persistent notes) guarantees comedy, and Wiles delivers. His narrator’s voice is straightforward and almost generically matter-of-fact, which makes all the funnier its frequent puncturing by lines like, “The etiquette of corpse-handling is not widely known, but some of its basics were obvious.” That style mirrors the narrator’s occupation of Oskar’s life: going along smoothly until something unexpected pops up. It embodies, too, a motivating tension of the text, between creativity as a drive toward control à la Oskar’s compositions, or an embrace of banal chaos per the narrator’s writing—a tension evident in their contrasting responses to the mundane details of everyday life reflected in the titles above.

When events cascade out of control, as they must, they do so in hilarious, heartbreaking ways that enrich both the story and the cultural questions it provokes. Those questions echo in the ambiguous Eastern European setting, the conflict of Oskar’s apartment writ large on the city, where communist-era bullet holes in are shown off to tourists, or at least to our narrator, who observes the towering presence of Western advertising and wonders if it’s the space of the “New Europe” that shapes its inhabitants, or vice versa. This layer of the novel is more subdued than I might have preferred, as I found myself wanting the historical and political context ratcheted up. I came to wonder, however, if restraint was the wiser choice; it forced me to be as critical of my own readerly inclination to pull at some threads over others, directing events from afar as Oskar does, instead of reveling in the novel’s own delightfully entropic force.

Wiles, formerly deputy editor of the architecture and design magazine Icon, has opted largely to contain his story in the domestic sphere, with glances outside frequent enough to make them matter without overwhelming the active ground of the apartment itself. In doing so he has crafted a novel able to make complex ideas about the personal, political, and cultural spaces we occupy hum with claustrophobic tension in the constraints of Oskar’s home and on the book’s pages, but loom large when we close the cover and project them out onto our world— where no space, or story, is ever as small as itself.