'Care of Wooden Floors': Will Wiles' nightmarish novel is an entertaining literary debut
Flat 17, the ultra-modern apartment at the center of Will Wiles' debut novel "Care of Wooden Floors," isn't booby-trapped, but it might as well be. By the time the novel's unreliable narrator and unnamed protagonist has exhausted his tale of woe, the reader, too, through literary osmosis, will have acquired expertise in cleaning expensive French oak floors.
The novel opens with the narrator's arrival at an unnamed Eastern European city from London where he works as an advertising copywriter. He has agreed to housesit the meticulously arranged flat of Oskar, an old college friend who has become a wealthy and celebrated composer at the Philharmonic.
New Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($24).
Oskar has gone to Los Angeles to finalize his divorce from an American, leaving the apartment with its imported furniture, expensive floors and two cats to his friend to look after for an indefinite period of time.
The apartment-sitter does what anyone would do in that situation -- he violates his friend's privacy at the first opportunity. Within an hour of arriving at the second-floor apartment of the six-story building on a "vaguely Moderne block," the narrator is snooping around like the nebbiest of old ladies.
He stumbles upon a series of notes written by Oskar containing instructions ranging from the care and feeding of the cats to admonitions about placing coasters under drinks. The longer missives stashed around the apartment close with the reminder that Oskar must be called if there's ever a spill on the pale wooden floors. It is clear from Oskar's notes that he assumes his friend would eventually need to call him about an accident. Slowly, the tension builds.
Although merely annoying at first, the apartment-sitter's indignation turns to rage as the days fly by and Oskar's eerie sense of precognition turns out to be accurate. Because Oskar has anticipated every screw-up, the reader is filled with a growing sense of dread as the increasingly agitated house guest uncovers new notes as problems pop up around the apartment.
While the apartment itself is a formidable enough enemy for the narrator, he is also given an equally dangerous antagonist in a non-English speaking cleaning lady who has a key to the apartment. He's afraid the house cleaner will stumble upon the mess he's made and call Oskar in Los Angeles. He wants to clean up the situation before Oskar ever learns the extent of the problems. More than anything, he wants to deny Oskar the satisfaction of being right.
In "Care of Wooden Floors," Mr. Wiles is able to maintain his balance with a narrative that grows more darkly humorous and unbearably tense with each turn of the page. The protagonist becomes increasingly unhinged as little problems are allowed to become big problems because of his inattention and incompetence. As the novel winds down, there is an inevitable confrontation that is as chilling as it is banal and violent.
The narrator doesn't spend all of his time alone in the chilly isolation of Oskar's place. He manages to make a mess of things outside the apartment, too beginning with a night on the town with one of the composer's friends that indirectly leads to a catastrophe back at Flat 17.
Later, the unnamed protagonist visits the outskirts of the city where he is confronted by a pack of feral dogs. The narrative is dense with strikingly vivid language and images. As the story unfolds over seven days, it illustrates how quickly leisure time in a foreign city can turn nightmarish.
"Care of Wooden Floors" is too robustly comic a tale, even with its escalating anxieties, to be considered a proper horror story. There's a sly reference to Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" buried deep in its 304 pages, but it is too self-conscious a gesture to be anything but a mischievous wink in the master's direction.
Will Wiles, a deputy editor of the monthly architecture and design magazine Icon, has put all of his expertise to work in one of the most brilliant and entertaining literary debuts this year. The precision of his language and the care with which he delineates the characters and their environment is nothing less than astounding.
If ever there was a primer on the spiritually deleterious effects of high-end furniture on the modern man's soul, "Care of Wooden Floors" is it.
First Published October 28, 2012 12:00 am