You have heard Variations on Tram Timetables?’

Care of Wooden Floors, by Will Wiles

This is another that I wanted to return to with a longer post after my recent May roundup. Will Wiles is an architecture journalist as well as author and this was his 2012 debut novel.

The unnamed narrator is a would-be author who instead drafts public information pamphlets for local authorities. Like many people he lives with the gulf between his dreams of who he could be and the messy reality of who he is.

At university one of his closest friends was Oskar, an intelligent and acerbic young man who’s gone on to become an internationally renowned modernist composer. Now Oskar is getting a divorce from his Californian wife and while he’s out in the US arranging that he needs someone to flat-sit for him. To the narrator’s surprise he’s the one Oskar reaches out to.

Oskar’s apartment is back in Oskar’s home country  – an unspecified former Soviet nation of no particular tourist interest. The city is drab and post-industrial, but Oskar’s apartment is a thing of beauty:

A wide hallway stretched from Oskar’s front door towards a south-facing living area. The hall was light and airy, with pale wooden floors and icy white walls. Two dark wooden doors were set into the wall to the right, like dominos on a bedspread, one halfway down, and the other near the far end. To the left was evidence of a refurbishment under Oskar’s direction: a long glass partition screening a large kitchen and dining area from the hallway. At its end, the hall opened out into the living area, which was demarcated by a single step down. The pale wooden flooring stretched to every corner of the flat, and the glass partition, which I assumed had replaced a non-supporting wall, evenly rinsed the space with the crystalline light entering through the generous south-facing picture windows that took up the far wall of the living space.
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.

You can see the architecture journalism coming through there. It’s easy to imagine a feature article in *Wallpaper or Monocle gushing over the design.

The living room – Area? Space? – centred on a sofa and two armchairs, all boxy black leather and chrome, the design of a dead Swiss architect. The east wall was one large bookcase, mostly filled with books but also seasoned with some objets. The kitchen was all aluminium and steel.

And of course:

Everything, everywhere, was impeccably tidy.

The narrator hopes to use his time in the flat to sort his own life out. He plans to finally get down to proper writing, to something more than yet another booklet on litter collection. First though he discovers that Oskar has left him a note. A four page note.

The section of the book containing that note runs over a page, and that’s with the narrator skimming large sections of it. The note is insanely prescriptive. It opens with thanks for the flat-sitting favour before giving tips on caring for Oskar’s two cats Shossy and Stravvy. There’s about half a page on how to care for them in fact, ending in a full-caps exhortation not to allow them on the sofa.

The narrator looks up, shoos them off the sofa, and continues reading. There are emergency contact details, tourist tips, a recommendation to see the local Philharmonic, and finally of course a section on the floors:

Oh, and finally what is perhaps the most important thing since the cats are able to take care of themselves and will tell you if they are in need of something: PLEASE, YOU MUST TAKE CARE OF THE WOODEN FLOORS. They are French oak and cost me a great deal when I replaced the old floor, and they must be treated like the finest piece of furniture in the flat, apart from the piano of course.
DO NOT put any drinks on them without a coaster.
ALWAYS wipe your feet before entering the flat, and take off your shoes when inside.
If anything should spill, you MUST wipe it up AT ONCE!!! so that it does not stain the wood. Be VERY CAREFUL. But if there is an accident (!), then there is a book on the architecture shelf that might help you. CALL ME if something happens.

The note comes with a bottle of wine which the narrator naturally opens. He can always start writing tomorrow…

Shreds of the previous evening lay by the sofa – the papers, the wine glass. I attended to the cats and then filled and switched on the kettle. As it boiled, I tidied away my mess, the depleted bottle – with its note from Oskar – the newspapers and magazines, the glass—
I stopped. A drop of wine or two must have made their way to the base of the glass on one of my many refills. There was no coaster beneath it. (In my mind’s eye, Oskar winced.) A 45-degree arc of red wine marked his precious floor, a livid surgical scar on pale flesh.

There was a lot I loved here. The descriptions of the apartment are unsurprisingly good. Oskar’s adventures with the cats and with the bafflingly hostile cleaner (they have no shared language) are convincing and the sense of mounting disaster is nicely captured.

The point in part is perfectibility. The narrator dreams of reading good books during his break, of writing poems, but instead ends up taken unwillingly by one of Oskar’s friend to a grim lap-dancing club and spending his evenings in drinking too much and worrying about the stain on the wooden floors. He wants to make his life as Oskar has made his apartment, but is Oskar’s apartment actually habitable?

Where the book didn’t quite work for me was that classic first novel fault of too many similes. All too often things aren’t allowed to be themselves, but must instead be like something else. Just two examples of several I could have picked:

Above it all, my angle-poise shone cyclopically like the fire brigade floodlights at a midnight motorway catastrophe.

my thoughts sprang up like a field of starlings startled by a farmer’s gunshot, a thousand separate, autonomous specks that swirled into a single united black shape.

It’s hardly fatal, but I think here it gets in the way a bit. Generally Wiles writes well with prose as clean and elegant as Oskar’s floors, which makes sentences like those above stick out a bit. The craft in them is a little too obvious, a little too attention-grabbing. Nobody other than a contemporary novelist actually thinks like that.

That criticism aside overall I thought this clever and enjoyable. Oskar and the narrator’s friendship is unlikely and seemingly not based on much but chance, and yet somehow is all the more persuasive for that and I believed in it. That issue of perfectibility, of whether it’s achievable and perhaps more whether it’s even desirable resonates. Which of us hasn’t looked at some glossy magazine spread and just for a moment imagined what it might be like to live in it? We should be glad few of us do.

Naturally before we’re done things spiral badly out of control and it all gets pretty dark. It’s not just a downward descent though and it’s central to the book’s themes that Wiles never forgets the importance of common humanity. The flat is unforgiving, but the book isn’t.

Finally, since I know there’s a few animal lovers who follow this blog, I’m afraid there is harm to one of the cats in the novel. It’s not gratuitously depicted and it’s mostly a pleasure to read the sections with the cats since Wiles clearly has such a good feel for their nature and behaviour, but if that’s an issue it’s something to be aware of. It’s no worse though (less if anything) than Bragi Olaffson’s marvellous The Pets which contains a similar setup, albeit there more in the backstory.

That’s a bit of a downbeat point to end on, so instead I’ll add that I also have Wiles’ next novel The Way Inn which also looks very good. He’s a writer engaging with the modern world in a way I find both interesting and refreshing so I have high hopes for it and for whatever he does next.

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4 Comments

Filed under Comic fiction, Wiles, Will

4 responses to “You have heard Variations on Tram Timetables?’

  1. I can see what you mean about the use of similes – the one about the starlings feels somewhat forced and overwritten. That said, I do like the line about the glass partition rinsing the living space with crystalline light – that’s a beautiful image. As you say, these niggles are forgivable in a first novel, especially when there’s so much else to enjoy.

    I do recall looking at this book when it came out in paperback, maybe 3 or 4 years ago. Actually, it’s really nice to see a review of it after all this time – thanks for the reminder.

  2. I remember some guarded praise for this when it came out, and your piece explains why it wasn’t unreserved. That central image of the impeccable floor being stained is better than those overwrought similes

  3. I recently read one w too many similes. There should be a rule: no more than one a page or something

  4. There’s a lot of good writing here, particularly descriptions of rooms and space. The thing with the similes is a fault, but it’s not fatal to the book. There’s always a risk when one pulls out individual lines for criticism that one grants them greater prominence than they merit.

    I did think the criticism was fair, and it seemed therefore odd not to include it (I don’t think blog reviews are obliged to be entirely, or indeed at all, positive). It shouldn’t overbalance the rest though. It’s well written, darkly funny and the whole perfectibility theme I think is pretty interesting.

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