It's Not Just About the Floors

Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles is simultaneously a hilarious romp and a serious commentary on human nature. The unnamed narrator, from London, is asked by his friend Oskar, who lives in an unnamed country that appears to be part of the former Soviet Union, to take care of his flat while he travels to Los Angeles to get divorced from his wife. The narrator, known only as "My old friend," in numerous notes left by Oskar about the care and feeding of his flat, his cats, and his possessions, is a mediocre writer of educational pamphlets (along the lines of "Bin or Recycle?," "How to read a tram schedule", and "Efficient Tooth-Brushing Methods") who dreams of being a serious writer and poet. He leaps at the chance to leave his drab London flat and his drab, mediocre, existence, to visit Oskar's exotic city and spend some time writing - surely, he thinks to himself when the offer is proffered, he will find inspiration in a new locale.

 

Oskar is a composer. He and the narrator have been friends since their university days, when Oskar's fastidiousness and lack of tolerance for noise and messiness is revealed. He is blunt and brutally honest. He seems to live his life by very carefully constructed rules and expects that everyone else lives their lives in the same way, preferably according to HIS rules. One could describe him as obsessively compulsive anal-retentive. One of his compositions is called Variations on Tram Timetables. His flat is pristine and elegant ("Taste and money had met in the crucible of this space and sublimed. The wood, steel and glass were the alchemical solids formed by the reaction.), and he has left extensive notes, obvious or later uncovered, on what to do or not do in taking care of a place of which he is extremely proud. He is especially proud of his wooden floors, and has not only left instructions on how not to mar them, he has also left a book, The Care Of Wooden Floors, to use in case something untoward happens, which it does, almost immediately. The narrator has a glass of wine, without using the prescribed coaster, on his first night in the flat, and the next moment he discovers an almost imperceptible stain on the precious wooden floors from a few drops of wine which escaped his glass the previous night. Try as he might, he cannot completely eradicate the stain with simple measures, and then every subsequent effort leads to ultimately disastrous results. One of the cats, who Oskar has told him must never sit on the leather sofa, not only sits on it, but scratches it. Things go very rapidly, graphically, and horrifying downhill with every day he spends in the flat, leading to an ending that is not only unexpected and hilarious, but also reveals how easy it is to make a mountain out of a molehill - to overreact and "innocently" cause a terrible sequence of events including more than one death. Because, of course, the narrator never believes that anything that happens is his fault. He views himself as the tragic innocent bystander, one to whom bad things happen but he never causes.

 

At several points in the story I asked myself whether Oskar or the narrator were mad. I wondered if some of the notes were actually notes from Oskar to himself (one found in a drawer gave instructions on how to use something) because he was losing his memory, but I rapidly realized that suspicion was my own "madness." "My old friend," however, finds his life spiraling out of control and his actions become more frantic and dramatic as he descends into what might be his own madness. He is certainly frantic, thinking he has destroyed not only Oskar's flat but also his reputation as a composer.

 

The story touches on universal themes: How can anyone be totally perfect? How do our expectations of ourselves get in the way of being who we really are? What are some of the costs of terrible practical jokes? Why is it so easy to excuse our inattention to something important that has unfortunate consequences? How do we strip away the veneer, not necessarily on our floors, but on our psyche, to discover our true selves?

I loved this book. The language is spare yet magnificent, full of puns and gorgeous description. I laughed, I was sad, I was horrified, and I marveled at and was reminded again that one little slip, if not put right, can result in unforeseen, unbidden, and horrific consequences.

 

Some reviews have compared Care of Wooden Floors to Kafka's Metamorphosis, which I have not yet read. It is on my list now.