Category Archives: Wiles, Will

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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Filed under Comic fiction, Wiles, Will

My mother’s much prettier than I am, but I don’t cry so much.

May roundup

I’ve quite enjoyed doing the roundup posts so I decided to do another. Several of these books I also hope to give a proper write-up to later this week or early next.

Child of all Nations, by Irmgard Keun and translated by Michael Hofmann

It’s hard to go wrong with a Hofmann translation of a Keun, and I didn’t. It’s the 1930s. Kully and her parents can’t go back to Germany as her father’s books are now banned there, but nowhere else seems to want them much either.

Child narrators are tricky things but Keun pulls it off here. Kully is the right mix of innocence and experience beyond her years. The portrait of her parents, particularly her feckless father, through Kully’s eyes is nicely done. Any resemblance between the father and Joseph Roth is surely coincidental…

I plan to do a proper write-up of this one. I loved its clever evocation of the tightrope faced by these unlikely refugees, always trying to maintain appearances just enough to keep the hotel manager from insisting on the bill being settled before that next hoped-for cheque or loan comes in. Kully’s pragmatism is frequently heartbreaking:

It’s warm and we’re hungry. We can’t leave, because we can’t pay the hotel bill. We can’t enter any other country, but we can’t stay here either. Perhaps we’ll be thrown into prison, and then we’ll be fed.

Keun though measures the bleakness with comedy, one of the advantages of a child narrator. Here’s one example of that:

Often we have no idea how long we’ve spent in a place. There’s only one unpleasant way of finding out, which is via the hotel bill. Then it always turns out we’ve been there much longer than we thought.

Highly recommended.

The City and the City, by China Miéville

I’d meant to read this for ages but was finally prompted to do so by the recent TV adaptation (which I’ve only now started watching). I was careful not to watch the TV version ahead of reading the book, but based on publicity materials alone I still saw David Morrissey’s face when I imagined the lead character.

Besel and Ul Qoma are two cities in an unspecified East-European or Balkan state. The twist however is that the two cities occupy the same geography. Some streets are categorised as being only in Besel, some only in Ul Qoma, some are shared between the two. The inhabitants of each city ignore the other by an act of will, only seeing their own.

It’s a surprisingly powerful metaphor, not just for the lunacy of many ethnic divisions in the world today but also for how often in real life we choose to ignore other cities that cohabit with our own. The homeless and the ultra-rich may occupy the same physical London, but the truth is they are easily as separate as the people of Besel and Ul Qoma. Perhaps more so since they rarely even share the same physical spaces and so don’t have to actively ignore each other.

Miéville explores his setting with what starts out as a deliberately conventional crime story before getting deeper into the strangeness and for me it worked very well. I don’t have a lot of quotes for this one, perhaps as most of them don’t make much sense out of context, but I enjoyed it and I think others might too even if they wouldn’t normally read SF.

When I reached the tar-painted front where Corwi waited with an unhappy-looking man, we stood together in a near-deserted part of Besel city, surrounded by a busy unheard throng.

Care of Wooden Floors, by Will Wiles

This is another one set in an unspecified fictional East European city oddly enough, though that’s all it has in common with the Miéville. The narrator, a rather ordinary and rather messy man, is asked by his more successful friend Oskar to look after Oskar’s apartment for a few weeks while Oskar is in California settling his divorce.

Oskar is a modernist composer and his apartment is a sleek testimonial to the perfection of his life and his taste, particularly the gleaming wooden floors. To make sure his friend knows how to take care of it he’s left a series of notes with pointers for where to find coasters, how to feed the cats, and of course how to take care of the wooden floor.

Then the narrator spills a glass of wine…

There’s a lot in here. Friendship, architecture, aesthetics and the degree to which humans can lead perfectible lives. It’s a first novel so at times it’s a bit heavy on the similes (authors, let a thing just be a thing!) but that’s a common and forgivable fault in what overall is a clever and fun novel.

Here’s the narrator is looking for some string to use to play with the cats:

Then, I opened one of the kitchen drawers, an out-of-the-way one that looked as if it might contain string. Inside the drawer was a note from Oskar. Corkscrew – in drawer by sink. Torch, batteries – in bottom drawer under sink. 1st aid box, aspirin – in bathroom. Cleaning things, candles – in pantry. This drawer: spices. Indeed, the drawer contained spices, and that distinctive spice-rack melange of smells. And Oskar’s note, another note. Did all the drawers contain notes like this? I had taken cutlery from a drawer, and there had been no note. Curious, I tried the next drawer along, and there was another little note, identical to the first one except for: This drawer: Place mats. Coasters. Two lines under coasters.

But then, what do you expect from a composer whose most famous work is titled Variations on Tram Timetables?

A Quiet Place, by Seichi Matsumoto and translated by Louise Heal Kawai

This is an interesting one. It’s the story of a highly respected and respectable public servant who despite all that may not actually be a very good man.

Tsuneo Asai is a middle-aged career civil servant. He’s not fast-track, he’s not from the right background for that, but through sheer hard work and talent he’s climbed the ranks anyway and has reasonable hopes of becoming a department chief before retirement.

He believed that listening faithfully to one’s manager’s idle chit-chat was a mark of respect.

Then while he’s on a business trip he hears that his young wife has died suddenly of a heart attack. Even though he knew she had a weak heart it’s still a shock, made more puzzling when he discovers that she died in a neighbourhood that she had no obvious business being in. Asai decides to investigate, finally getting to know his wife only now she’s dead.

What follows is a mix of character study and crime novel (as in much good crime fiction of course). The wife’s death is plainly natural causes, but that doesn’t mean nothing odd was going on and Asai soon discovers that what he thought was a quiet housewife with a few polite hobbies may in fact have been a passionate and talented young woman that he barely knew.

A Quiet Place doesn’t start with a crime, just a mystery, but Asai’s curiosity will set in motion consequences he couldn’t have dreamt of. Before the book’s out it will get very dark indeed (though never gratuitous) and becomes a story of complacency, repression and ultimately obsession. Guy wrote a very good review of it here which has a particularly fine insight into the characterisation (or lack thereof) of Asai’s previous wife.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, by Soji Shimada and translated by Russ and Shika Mackenzie

I finished the month with a bit more Japanese crime, here a very classic locked room mystery. Perhaps too classic since it’s not actually a genre I care much about and this is a very good representation of it which means I didn’t hugely enjoy it.

The book opens with an excerpt from the diary of a reclusive artist. In it he reveals an insane plan to murder his daughters and step-daughters to create some kind of composite perfect woman. Those crimes happened, the daughters and step-daughters were murdered just as per his plan. The only wrinkle is that he was murdered first.

Forty years later in the mid-1970s two amateur detectives decide to solve these famous killings which (within the fiction) have now gripped Japan for decades. Matsumoto plays fair by the reader, including detailed floor plans, family trees and every clue needed to let the reader solve the mystery for themselves.

Unfortunately, I worked out the who and the why really quickly, surprisingly so given I wasn’t particularly trying. I didn’t quite get the how but that was a bit unlikely anyway (they always are in these things). Given that, I struggled to buy that police and amateurs alike had struggled for forty years to solve something most of which I got in about half an hour.

Still, I may have been lucky and admittedly I spotted a key bit of early misdirection (authors in this genre have to include all the clues you need, but there’s nothing that says they can’t try and distract you from them).

The two investigators themselves have very little personality, but that’s to be expected because really this is a puzzle-book where the reader is the real investigator. Underling this is the fact that at two points Shimada personally intervenes in the text:

Gentle Reader, Unusual as it may be for the author to intrude into the proceedings like this, there is something I should like to say at this point. All of the information required to solve the mystery is now in your hands, and, in fact, the crucial hint has been provided already. I wonder if you noticed it? My greatest fear is that I might already have told you too much about the case! But I dared to do that both for the sake of fairness of the game, and, of course, to provide you with a little help. Let me throw down the gauntlet: I challenge you to solve the mystery before the final chapters! And I wish you luck.

This wasn’t my book, but that’s mostly I think because it’s just not a genre that interests me. I’m a bit in the position of someone who doesn’t read SF criticising a space opera for having spaceships. In its field I suspect this is actually pretty good. If anyone reading this has read it and has any thoughts I’d be delighted to hear them.

And that’s it for May! It started stronger than it finished for me, but an interesting mix all the same.

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Filed under Architecture, Crime, Hofmann, Michael (translator), Japanese fiction, Keun, Irmgard, Matsumoto, Seichi, Miéville, China, SF, Shimada, Soji, Wiles, Will