Care of Wooden Floors is a sometimes amusing, sometimes unsettling novel, with several tips of the hat to Edgar Allan Poe. The story’s narrator, an Englishman who is never given a name and whom I shall hereafter refer to as “N,” has just arrived in an East European country to stay at his friend Oskar’s flat while he’s in California. Oskar is a successful composer, fastidious and demanding, with high standards for everything — music, food, drink, living space. The man loves and craves order. His best known composition is based on the theme of tram schedules and he is working on a piece that will be an homage to the Dewey decimal system. His apartment is a newly renovated masterpiece with fine wooden floors. When it comes to things, Oskar demands and gets the best. When it comest to people, he is often disappointed. His wife has left him and returned to California to divorce him (the reason for his absence) and his friend, the narrator, is watching the apartment and cats while Oskar is away.
Why Oskar is friends with N is puzzling to both reader and narrator. N is not particularly successful at anything in his life. He wants to be a writer but is employed as a pamphleteer for his local council. His girlfriend has left him, his apartment is a dump. Oskar and N met in college and maintained a friendship, it seems, because N was the only person willing to put up with Oskar’s persnickety ways and Oskar has worked at maintaining the friendship over time despite his seeming disdain for N’s slovenliness and overall mediocrity. Their personalities are quite opposite. In telling N about his divorce, Oskar says, “People say, this is difficult, that is difficult. It is an excuse for failing, for doing something wrong. It is not difficult — it should not be difficult. As long as there are some rules, some agreements, people should know how to do things, then everything should be easy.” For N on the other hand, “Perfection is aggressive. It is a rebuke.”
When N arrives, Oskar has already gone to California and has left written instructions for N throughout the apartment, often in unexpected places, as if he knows in advance what N is going to do. Oskar is especially concerned about his floors and has left explicit instructions to call him if anything happens. Naturally, something does happen and N does not call. N seems afraid of Oskar’s reaction but also welcomes the opportunity to put one over on Oskar by somehow hiding what he has done. N thinks he can fix the problems, but as he bumbles about, trying to salvage an increasingly degenerating situation, it is as if Oskar has anticipated every fumble that N would make and has a note waiting. This contributes to N’s frustration and makes him more adamant that he will not give in, he will not call Oskar.
In some ways, this story is like one of those contemporary Hollywood comedies wherein the “hero” is a drunken lout who, through carelessness and bad luck, has to deal with problems that get worse as he tries to fix them. N actually compares his situation to that of Wile E Coyote at one point. Since the narrator is indeed a drunken lout, and he is presenting from his point of view alone, the reader is not always sure if N’s version of events is accurate and truthful. And as story progresses, the reader knows something truly awful will happen. In fact a couple of really awful things happen, and the reader might start to wonder about the reliability and mental stability of the narrator.
Care of Wooden Floors is quite suspenseful and drives the reader forward to see what is going to happen. I was not wholly satisfied with the ending of the novel. I had hoped for something unexpected, even macabre, but the author gives us something worthy of a Hollywood comedy (and not a terribly funny one). Overall, it was an okay book and I feel bad saying that because I feel like I should have loved it. Just didn’t.