The essence of this book is the old comedy routine where some mistake is made and the effort to fix it only results in more and bigger mistakes. I remember an episode of the TV sitcom ‘Some mothers do ‘ave ‘em’ in which the disaster-prone Frank Spencer tears the floor lino of his hotel room by accident and proceeds to trash the whole place in his efforts to put things right. That (and come to think of it, all the episodes had the same basic form) is essentially the plot of this book. However the pace is slower, the psychology of the Frank Spencer equivalent is observed from a first person perspective with meticulous care and some emotional depth, and everything is described with a rich, concrete and multi-levelled prose which reminded me at times of Martin Amis, with its extravagant metaphors, enviable command of vocabulary and its ability to move between laugh-out-loud funny and real darkness. (A bit like Martin Amis, but without that haughty patrician sneer.) I really admired Wiles’ ability to explore very ordinary sensations in an interesting way. Here he is for example on the smell of a utility room:
The little room smelled wholesome and comforting. Nothing identifiable predominated in this subtle aroma, but it was so pleasing and homely that it enticed me to pause, testing the air to see if I could anatomise it. Dry food certainly contributed a large share, and so did cleaning products; unlikely conspirators but here successful. They shared ground on the spectrum of the nose: there was a certain note that was just right, natural and savoury, with a hint of purifying astringency.
In this case, it isn’t a hotel room but a beautiful flat which is under threat. The flat is in some unspecified Eastern European city and the narrator has been invited to look after it for a week or two (along with two cats) on behalf of his obsessively tidy friend Oskar. In particular he has been asked to look after the beautiful wooden floors, and I don’t think it would be too much of a spoiler to say that the first small disaster is a spillage of wine which soaks into the wood and leaves a stain.
Things progress from there as the narrator blunders into yet more errors and increasingly catastrophic attempts to put them right, all the while encountering notes left for him by Oskar, who seems to have anticipated every move, including even the discovery of his stash of porn magazines. For most of the book the events that happen are really quite minor and interaction with other human beings is minimal, but the author manages to extract a great deal from this limited field of view, including real tension out of the narrator’s agonised anticipation of his friend’s response. It’s almost as if Oskar were some kind of diety who has placed the narrator on Earth and will return at last in a kind of Judgement Day.
Towards the end of the book, I felt that the author wrong-footed himself a couple of times. The first is when the catalogue of disasters takes a very much darker turn than hitherto. This in itself would have been okay with a different ending, but the ending we in fact get is the second and more serious piece of wrong-footedness, for the author suddenly decides to give us a Hollywood-style feel-good conclusion in which our protagonist spells out for us the important life lessons he has learned. (I was reminded of the ending of the film The Beach, when a hitherto dark narrative about a descent into barbarism is suddenly disrupted in the same sort of way by an awful voiceover that suggests that the whole thing has really been rather life-enhancing and fun.) I found this move too much at odds with the tone of the book as a whole and with the rather horrific events that had occurred less than 24 hours previously, even though the life lessons themselves were as thoughtful and well-expressed as ever.