A woman dies on the operating table. Her spirit, untethered from her body, floats beyond the walls of the hospital. Once revived, she describes seeing a shoe on the roof. Doctors are skeptical of the woman’s claim and send a janitor up onto that roof. He finds a shoe.
Will Ferguson’s new novel The Shoe on the Roof opens with this spiritual, ghostly tale, the sort that has led to a whole industry of books claiming life beyond death, and others seeking the soul in our genes and synapses. This metaphysical argument provides the backbone of the novel. As with Ferguson’s other work, including the Giller Prize-winning 419, it’s full of wry humour and wise, essayistic asides that keep the prose moving at a quick clip. It’s also oddly devastating, a mature work written by a writer in full control of his game.
Andrew is a doctor, reeling from a recent breakup with Amy, his long-time girlfriend. Hoping to rejuvenate his spirits and career, he uses his knowledge of the brain’s malleability and undertakes a research project with three homeless men, all of whom claim to be the messiah. His effort to cure them also offers the opportunity for some familial revenge: Andrew’s father, also a psychiatrist, used him as a guinea pig to study juvenile psychology, embarrassingly preserved for posterity in a book titled The Good Son. Things don’t quite go as planned.
In the book’s acknowledgements, Ferguson mentions the work of Milton Rokeach, a psychiatrist who did exactly what Andrew attempts in the novel. Detailed in his cult psychiatry book (if there is such a thing), The Three Christs of Ypsilanti (1964), Rokeach explores the outer limits of clinical attempts to “cure” individuals with complex personality disorders. Years later, Rokeach effectively repudiated his research by apologizing for what he believed to be ethical problems.
Outside of book reviewing, I work in a clinical setting that supports people with complex mental health issues. I’m aware of the public perception of psychiatry as a practice of drugging patients into oblivion. There’s also the struggle of trying to help people lost in the depths of depression and psychosis, a decidedly unfunny process that Ferguson writes about with empathy and insight. It’s a credit to him that The Shoe on the Roof reads as so funny and emotionally complex without coming off like the musings of an armchair psychologist.
Whether it strikes one as sacrilegious or not, the history of prophets and martyrs also reads as a history of madness. But as Ferguson posits early in the novel, even if we were able to reveal the biological roots of our deepest spiritual impulses, would we want to? Perhaps it’s best to let some mysteries remain.
—Bryn Evans is a mental health care worker in Calgary.