"Care of Wooden Floors," a novel by Will Wiles, published in the United States this week by Amazon Publishing/New Harvest ($24), turns the placid act of house-sitting into one man's existential nightmare.
The narrator, a slacker copywriter, travels to a nameless Eastern European city to watch the apartment of an old college friend, Oskar, a composer who lives in "expensive, extravagant simplicity." Among Oskar's many, many rules for his houseguest -- feed the cats, replace any coffee you drink, don't play the piano -- is one imploring him to take extra care to preserve the French oak floors, a task at which he fails spectacularly.
Mr. Wiles, the former deputy editor of Icon, a British design magazine, seems to both pay tribute to and satirize our desire for a perfect domestic life. With his Le Corbusier chairs and rigid sense of order, Oskar is an aesthete in the extreme, Mr. Wiles said. But the narrator is "eager to spend time in Oskar's flat so some of that perfection rubs off on him."
Mr. Wiles spoke by phone from his home in East London about the inspiration for the novel and what irks him about the design world.
Have you house-sat before?
I got the idea for the book while I was looking after an apartment owned by some friends of my sister. It was in Amsterdam. It had wooden floors; also two cats. This business of having an insight into someone's life through their flat struck me as potentially fertile.
Can you really know someone from seeing their home?
How people choose to live is really a quite intimate insight into their personality. They're setting up part of the world precisely as they would want it. As such, they're imprinting their character on it: desires, aspirations, even fears. It tells you things you wouldn't get from conversation.
Do you know anyone with Oskar's fascistic sense of household order?
There's no Oskar in my life. But, certainly, Oskar-like traits are very widespread. In all of us there's a sense that, if we could just get our house in order, everything will fall into place. If we had the proper kitchen, we'd be cooking all the time and putting on these giant dinner parties. Or in the bedroom we'd be more, I don't know, adventurous, if only the dirty socks weren't on the floor.
And yet the narrator seems driven insane by living under such constraints.
You do find being taken out of your home and staying somewhere else does slightly detach you. But when he begins to obsess, he does crack up. The sense of being watched by Oskar is a contributing factor of the narrator's paranoia and alarm. Oskar's exertion of control is absolutely and completely totalitarian.
What's your own home like?
Right now, I'm looking at a scene of considerable disorder: heaps of magazines and boxes of things. We're expecting a baby. The Oskar tendency is very much in retreat over here.
The floor-care manual that gives the novel its title reads like an absurd mash-up of Bob Vila and a Buddhist monk.
I worked in architecture and design and saw a lot of this New Age-y stuff. You get this spiritual guff -- the idea that if you just get slightly more expensive furniture you'll be more fulfilled as a person. I wanted to have my revenge on it. It makes me grind my teeth.
Is the novel a comment on how one should live?
I wouldn't want to suggest it was a manifesto for anything. But it might serve as a warning of the dangers of striving for perfection, and the impossibility of perfection. Good enough is good enough. Human beings can't be perfected.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.