A Review of Will Ferguson's The Shoe on the Roof
Review by Jennifer McCartney
A while ago my father had deep brain stimulation surgery to help ease the symptoms of his Parkinson’s Disease. What happens is that surgeons put wires into your brain while you’re awake. They put them in different spots and wiggle them around and ask you to report on how you’re feeling. Ideally, the wires will then be placed in the correct spot and connected to electricity which will help patients to walk a bit better. Some patients report vivid memories arising at some precise moment of probing. Some report strange smells. Others notice their left leg or right arm getting weaker. Even when the surgeons are inside your brain, it seems, they can’t predict exactly what you will experience. It’s all a bit of guesswork. After one of my father’s jokes landed flat, about three hours into his surgery, he had to inform the rather serious surgeon that he didn’t think much of the his sense of humour. I guess the surgeon wasn’t wired that way.
Giller-Prize-winning humorist Will Ferguson’s fourth novel The Shoe on the Roof is concerned with brains — how we think, what is real, and how our brain chemistry makes us who we are. The novel opens with a beautiful scene examining the tension between medical science and, well, the unknown. It’s about the afterlife and maybe a bit about faith. After a patient comes back from the dead on the operating table she recounts the existence of a shoe on the hospital roof, which she observed as she left her body and floated up above the building. She is assured by her doctors that it was a hallucination, the result a lack of oxygen, neurons firing and dying. But when the roof is searched by an obliging janitor, the shoe is there.
The existence of that shoe serves as a counterpoint to the convictions of our rather unlikable narrator Thomas Rosanoff — a Harvard neurology student, pick up artist, and general, all-around dick of a human being — who explains that everything, from who we love to our sense of self, is a result of our brain chemistry and nothing else. Love, he insists, can be explained away by science. Same with religious experiences. There is no mystery. “Biology does all the work, poets take the credit,” he announces. This conviction, as we will learn, begins to waver as Thomas plunges himself into a satisfyingly nutty world of kidnappings, auditory hallucinations, nuns, and possibly magic.
The first third of the novel introduces us to a young Thomas and his girlfriend Amy, whom he meets after tricking her into volunteering for a neurological study. We learn through Thomas’s clinical observations that poor Amy isn’t quite up to snuff. :“When she took a shower, she was rather slapdash about the whole thing.” The walls of her apartment need painting. She can’t cook. She’s “baffled by the very concept of time.” And, perhaps most damning, she believes in God. When Amy breaks up with Thomas, much to the reader’s relief, he returns to his pickup-artist ways using his knowledge of psychiatry to hunt unwitting “subjects” — soccer moms, co-eds, etc. whom he obligingly and unfailingly brings to climax. Unfulfilled by these trysts, he hatches a plan to win back Amy’s love — a plan that involves kidnapping, then curing, her dear brother who is in a private psychiatric institution.
Thomas’s experiment, and the main focus of the novel, ultimately involves three men, each believing himself to be the messiah. He posits that by bringing the men together and confronting them with the fact of one another’s existence, he will cure them all of their delusions — a successful example of this treatment having been documented by Voltaire centuries ago. Thomas’s penchant for unauthorized human “studies” can be slightly forgiven as we learn that he himself was the subject of an exploitative and damaging childhood experiment at the hands of his famous psychiatrist father. His plan eventually goes off the rails and Thomas’s world view is altered slightly, with the help of his subjects, to include the possibility that some parts of the self are unknowable.
The subject matter — three mentally-ill men, unable to function in society, who are manipulated by the narrator all for the purpose of winning back a woman whom he never seemed to like in the first place — is unnerving at times. It’s darker than Ferguson’s other works but this darkness is mitigated by his trademark humor that’s evident throughout. There’s a running gag about Thomas’s expensive Finnish décor that everyone mistakes for Ikea. Light switches “migrate” when a drunk Thomas attempts to use them. His verbal sparring with the three messiahs is likewise fascinating and funny.
Despite a few narrative quibbles (like the slightly unbelievable subplot involving Thomas’s best friend), The Shoe on the Roof is a captivating book that amidst its madness provides many opportunities for sober reflection on the nature of self. Perhaps with a few well-placed wires, my father’s aforementioned serious surgeon could be programmed to have a sense of humour. Who knows? As Thomas concludes, in one of his many enlightening asides, “[T]here’s nothing mystical about the experience. Except, of course, for the experience itself.” For Ferguson fans, the experience will likely be love at first sight.
Jennifer McCartney is a New York Times bestselling author. She’s published numerous books including The Joy of Leaving Your Sh*t All Over the Place, Cocktails for Drinkers, and the novel Afloat. Her writing has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and appeared in The Atlantic, Vice Magazine, Teen Vogue, CBC, and Publishers Weekly, among other publications. Originally from Hamilton, Ontario, she lives in Brooklyn, New York. Find her at www.jennifermccartneywrites.com.