Sunday, 31 March 2013

Schadenfreude and Schrodinger

Today is the end of the TBR Double Dog Dare and I confess I fell at the final hurdle. Apart from a couple of audiobooks which were only to keep me company while I knitted, I had managed to stick to books that were either owned or in my library request list since the 1st of January .... until Friday. I finished The Tiger's Wife and picked up a library book that was waiting, something worthy and scientific that Brainpickings had recommended, and I couldn't find a moment's interest in it. 'Care of Wooden Floors' by Will Wiles had been bought with my Christmas money and had been waiting patiently on the windowsill, I succumbed. It has only taken me two days to read it. I will be lending it to lots of people.

It sounds like a really dull premise for a story: our unnamed protagonist goes to an unnamed east European city to 'flat-sit' for a friend. The title is not that promising either. Don't be fooled. The friend, Oskar, is a control-freak classical composer, and they have known each other since university days. The narrator is a writer who aspires to move from copywriting local authority leaflets to something slightly more creative, and has hopes that a couple of weeks in the seclusion and calm of his friend's flat might be just the impetus he needs. Lets just say that things don't work out quite as he hoped. There will be no spoilers as any disclosure of the events that follow would be unforgivable. I did get to the stage where I was anticipating what was going to happen next; at one point I had to shut the book and leave the room as my precognition was creating excessive anxiety as the situation in the flat spirals out of control. He is a fish out of water, isolated in a strange country where he can't communicate with the locals, you watch fascinated as his sense of reality slowly unravels. The instructional notes from Oskar that are secreted around the flat are wonderful, managing to still pop up unexpectedly even when you think you know how his brain works. I can tell you that red wine and cats are the dominant players in the drama.

Schadenfreude: the quote on the front from The Independent review is very accurate, there was much pleasure derived from someone else's misfortune. I never laughed aloud at a book as much as I did this afternoon. I kept expecting him to just give up and leave, but no, everything he did, all the choices seemed to be about the worst thing you could decide in any situation. This was what made it so funny, it wasn't just things happening, it was his decisions that forced the situation through more and more bizarre turns. He mentions Schrodinger early in the story, I don't recall exactly, but then much much later we have the situation where he thinks; "As long as Oskar didn't know about the cat, and the wine, I had a few more throws of the dice. The cat, in fact, was not dead until he learned it was dead". (p.179) The whole book becomes a weird twisted Schrodinger experiment, if Oskar doesn't know something then he can continue to pretend to himself that it hasn't really happened. 

Ok, quotation time, because it was not just an incredibly clever story with beautifully crafted characters, it is exquisitely written. There were moments when I felt there was excessive adverb usage, and sometimes he dwelled over long on the description, but I forgave him completely. 

His first view of the wooden floor;
"The beautiful wooden floor didn't have nails, it had a manicure." (p.5)

The furniture in the flat;
"It was one of those chairs that had a sad aura of futility, a regret that it had been designed to be sat in and never was, and had often suffered the indignity of simply being a prop to drape clothes over." (p.10)

Oskar's approach to interior decor:
" 'A room is not just a room. A room is a manifestation of a state of mind, the product of an intelligence. Either conscious' - and he dropped dramatically back into his armchair, sending up a plume of dust and cigarette ash - 'or unconscious. We make our rooms, and then our rooms make us.' " (p.34)

In the local market place;
"Never before have I truly understood the full significance of the word 'heaving' in relation to masses of humanity, but the market was heaving; one's direction of travel was utterly limited by crowd consensus, so that whole quarters were closed off by contrary flows of traffic, and often your course was entirely away from your intended direction, dictated only by a new shudder of peristalsis in the folds and crevices the stalls left for their wretched customers." (p.38)

On finding a note from Oskar in a CD case inviting him to enjoy the music, this is an early sign of how his isolation is beginning to show the cracks in his sanity;
"How nice of him, I thought, or at least began to think as the sentiment stopped dead in my mind, like the needle being ripped off the surface of a old vinyl LP. This wasn't nice, or if it was nice it was nice in a sinister spectrum of nice that I did not have the ability to see." (p.65)

The light in the study;
"Even the light here was different - it seemed to slant most attractively, italicised for emphasis, soft and pale as vellum, enlivened by the pirouetting points that rose from the seams of dust cultivated by stockpiles of paper. It was restful, but wholly awake." (p.162)

I was going to put in a lovely quote where he makes a circuitous justification for why none of the events are his fault, but unfortunately it gives far too much away. The crux of the book is the interplay of the two characters; even though Oskar is not there except for brief flashback moments to their early friendship, his personality is the dominant one, and our protagonist struggles to assert himself. And Oskar made me feel as if I am hardly neurotic at all. I was mistaken in my suspicions about the denouement, but the final twist of the plot was just perfect. Sometimes I find people's irrational behaviour in books to be annoying, but here it was logical and in character. I cannot fault this book, I am not sure everyone would find it as amusing as I did, but give it a try anyway.

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