Imagine...meeting someone with the same name, the same history, the same family, the same identity as you. Now, imagine meeting another person making the same exact claim. What would that do to you?
From the Giller Prize–winning novelist of 419 comes the startling, funny, and heartbreaking story of a psychological experiment gone wrong.
Ever since his girlfriend ended their relationship, Thomas Rosanoff’s life has been on a downward spiral. A gifted med student, he has spent his entire adulthood struggling to escape the legacy of his father, an esteemed psychiatrist who used him as a test subject when he was a boy. Thomas lived his entire young life as the “Boy in the Box,” watched by researchers behind two-way glass.
But now the tables have turned. Thomas is the researcher, and his subjects are three homeless men, all of whom claim to be messiahs—but no three people can be the one and only saviour of the world. Thomas is determined to “cure” the three men of their delusions, and in so doing save his career—and maybe even his love life. But when Thomas’s father intervenes in the experiment, events spin out of control, and Thomas must confront the voices he hears in the labyrinth of his own mind.
The Shoe on the Roof is an explosively imaginative tour de force, a novel that questions our definitions of sanity and madness, while exploring the magical reality that lies just beyond the world of scientific fact.
In the Coronary Care Unit of Seattle ’s Harborview Hospital, a woman identified as M. goes into full cardiac arrest. She dies on the operating table. With no vital signs—no pulse, no respiration—an emergency EEG reveals that her brain activity has flatlined. But the doctors and nurses at Harborview do not give up. They work frantically to resuscitate her and, even more remarkably, they succeed. They bring the patient back from a state of clinical death. When she regains consciousness, M. tells the doctors that she could hear what they were saying the entire time, every word. She’d felt herself floating above the operating table, calm and at peace, had watched the doctors as they tried to revive her. She’d drifted upward into a tunnel of light—but was then pulled back down, into her body, felt the pain and panic return. When she told them this, the doctors nodded. It was a common hallucination. The light, they explained, was a symptom of cerebral hypoxia: with oxygen cut off to the brain, peripheral vision goes first, closing inward toward the centre of the optic nerve, creating a distinct tunnel effect. The sense of calm would have come from a sudden release of endorphins. The feelings of separation from her body would have occurred as her brain’s parietal lobes shut down. But it seemed so real, she said. I could feel myself lifting up, through the ceiling, above the hospital, I could see the roof, could see the ledge, the shoe in one corner. The shoe?
Yes, a tennis shoe. The patient described the shoe in detail: the frayed toe, the matted laces caught under one heel. I saw it, she said. It’s there, on the roof. The doctors exchanged looks, then sent a janitor up. They found it, tucked out of sight, exactly where she said it would be: a single shoe, on the roof.
PART ONE: The Wine, the Blood, and the Sea
The one Almighty Fact about love affairs is that they end. How they end and why, although of crucial interest—indeed, agony—to the participants, is less important than that they end. Marriages might linger like a chest cold, and there are friendships that plod along simply because we forget to cancel the subscription. But when love affairs collapse, they do so suddenly: they drop like swollen mangoes, they shatter like saucers, they drown in the undertow, they fall apart like a wasp’s nest in winter. They end. Thomas knew this, and yet . . . There is a story, often told, possibly apocryphal, certainly apropos, of a seasoned skydiver who, in what can only be described as a monumental lapse of judgment, forgot to strap on his parachute before flinging himself from a plane. As one might imagine, he went through all five stages of Kübler-Ross in quick order, shock, denial, anger, dismay, until, in accepting his fate, he chose to embrace it. The skydiver spread his arms, turned pirouettes and somersaults while he tumbled, performing acrobatic death-defying feats all the way down. But none of that makes the landing any softer.
Thomas was in his late twenties when he hit the ground. He’d begun his swan dive without realizing it, in an artist’s loft in Boston’s West End on a sleepy cirrus Sunday. A muted morning. The curtains were moving; he remembers that, the ripples of cream-coloured cloth: long inhalations, slow exhalations. Sunlight on the floor. A messy room (not his), lined with equally messy canvases. Oil paintings mostly: thickly textured renderings of angular faces spattered with stars. An overstuffed laundry hamper in one corner was spilling clothes like the world’s worst piñata. Bricks-and-board bookshelves, overdue art volumes splayed every which way. A telescope by the window, leaning on drunken legs, squinting upward into nothingness. Wine bottles on the windowsills, multicoloured candle wax dripping down the sides—still de rigueur among the university set. Wind and curtain and canvas. And now, this: the sound of church bells. Amy, scrambling out of her dishevelled bed. Amy, dashing about, baffled by the very concept of time. She was always late, which was not remarkable in itself, but she was always surprised she was late, and Thomas found this both annoying and oddly endearing. She seemed to think that time was liquid, a substance that filled the available forms it was poured into, when in fact it sliced the air with a metronymic predictability. Moments before, Thomas and Amy had been playing doctor, a favourite game of theirs, with Amy astride his lap, dressed in a man’s shirt—not his. (Where did it come from, this oversized shirt? Why did she have it? Was it a souvenir of other phosphorous love affairs? Best not to think about it.) She wore it loosely, like a pajama top, misbuttoned, un-ironed. He remembers the loose cotton. The warmth of her. Amy, laughing. “Stop it.” It would be the last happy conversation they would ever have. “Stop what?” “Stop that.” Thomas is in a white lab coat with boxers pooled around his ankles. He slides a stethoscope down the inside of her shirt, and then slowwwwly across her chest. Pretends to listen. Amy, voice hushed. “What is it, doc? Somethin’ bad? You can tell me, I can take it.” Thomas frowns. A practiced frown. A medical frown. Listens more attentively. “Can’t seem . . . to find . . . a heartbeat.” He was scarcely a year older than Amy, but looked ten years younger, as though his face had never grown up, as though it were still trapped in the first flush of postpubescence. It’s something she’d often commented on, how young he looked. Later, she would notice how old he had become. So there they are, the two of them: Amy, with a raven’s wing of hair fanning across her shoulder; Thomas in his Sunday-morning stubble. Straw-blond hair that refused to hold a part, eyes so pale they were barely there. “Grey? Or blue?” Amy had asked this early on, studying him carefully before deciding. “Blue. Defi blue.” Our intrepid young medical student has now slipped the stethoscope further down, cupping Amy’s breasts, first one, then the other. She shivers at the touch of it. “Can’t you warm those up first?” Now it was Amy’s turn. She pulled the end of the stethoscope free, flipped it over, held it up to Thomas’s chest. A thin chest, almost hairless.
“So?” she asked. He tilted his head, listened for his own heartbeat. “Anything?” she asked. “Nothing.” He looked at her. “That can’t be good. Can it?” She laughed, a snort, really. “Are you sure you’re a real doctor?” “A real doctor?” She leaned closer, held him with her thighs. “I’ve heard rumours.” “Rumours?” “Med students, passing themselves off as physicians, taking advantage of impressionable young women.” “I resent that! A slanderous accusation! Slanderous and scurrilous! Now then, take off all your clothes and say ‘Ahh.’ ” Amy leaned in closer, whispered in his ear. “Ahhhhh . . .” And then—and then, the goddamn sound of the goddamn church bells. Dull peals, distant but ever-present. “We ’re late! C’mon!” She leapt from his lap, hurried about, searching for underwear. She pulled on a pair, more or less at random, grabbed her jeans and hopped into them on the way to the bathroom. Thomas fell back onto the bed, frustrated, annoyed, erect. He could see Amy brushing her teeth—or rather, chewing on the toothbrush as she unbuttoned the man’s shirt she was wearing. She tossed it to one side like a flag on the play, tried to disentangle a bra from a knot of laundry on the counter. “Amy,” he said (sighed). She packed her breasts into her bra like eggs into a carton, gave her teeth two decisive back-and-forths, spit into the sink, pulled back her hair with an elastic.
Thomas leaned up on his elbows, boxers still around his ankles. “Listen. About this whole church thing . . .” She stopped. Stepped out of the bathroom with her toothbrush clenched in her mouth, glared at him. They’d had this conversation before.
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The Shoe on the Roof Will Ferguson Reading Group Guide
Topics & Questions for Book Clubs
1. Sister Frances tells Thomas that “Science can only take us so far. . . . There will always be something just out of reach. Something elusive. We might as well call it God.” What does The Shoe on the Roof ultimately say about the tension between science and faith?
2. After Thomas and Amy break up, Thomas complains that love serves no evolutionary purpose, but merely produces “temporary madness, when all is said and done.” How are the ideas of love and madness intertwined in The Shoe on the Roof?
3. How does Thomas’s childhood as “the Boy in the Box” shape him? Does it change how he relates to others?
4. What role does Sister Francis play in Thomas’s life? What influence, if any, does she have on Thomas?
5. Religion plays an important role throughout the novel. How does religion shape the lives of each of the characters? Is it for better or for worse?
6. Not wanting to live under the shadow of his father, Thomas adopts his mother’s surname, and in doing so, alters his identity. How does the importance of names affect Thomas and other characters throughout the novel?
7. Thomas is simultaneously drawn to and infuriated by Eli, Sebastian, and the Magician. Discuss why there is a push and pull between Thomas and his test subjects.
8. Thomas believes that “injustice, like longing, gravity, taxes, or air, will always be part of our world, not an anomaly.” What do you make of Thomas’s view on life, considering everything he has gone through?
9. Thomas receives anonymous postcards, always with “Remember Me?” written on the back. Eventually, the message becomes, “Remember Me.” How does this shift in punctuation alter the meaning of the message for Thomas? Why did it take him so long to realize the difference?
10. According to Bernie, we are born with three emotions: fear, love, and rage. Discuss the significance of these three emotions in Thomas’s subjects: Eli, Sebastian, and the Magician.
11. Does Thomas’s experiment fail? Do you think that Eli, Sebastian, and the Magician can all be God? Why or why not?
12. Discuss the significance of the title The Shoe on the Roof.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Now that you’ve finished the book, reread the parable of the shoe on the roof from the beginning. How does this story relate to the themes of The Shoe on the Roof?
2. The novel addresses addiction and homelessness, two issues that are prevalent in many urban areas. After reading about the lives of these characters, has your opinion of addiction and/or homelessness changed?
3. In his author’s note, Will Ferguson writes about the setting of the novel, explaining that the novel was originally to be set in Montreal. Do you think this story could have taken place in your city? Why or why not?
Will Ferguson is the author of four novels, including 419, which won the Scotiabank Giller Prize. A three-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, he has been nominated for both a Commonwealth Prize and an IMPAC Dublin Award. The Shoe on the Roof is his most recent novel. Will Ferguson lives in Calgary. Visit him at WillFerguson.ca.
“Ferguson is a skillful and original writer, and over all, the novel is full of life. . . . The Shoe on the Roof’s lasting strength is in such sly jabs at the “alternative facts” and deep divisions we’re now reckoning with, making it a tale for the times.”
– The Globe and Mail
PRAISE FOR 419
“A deeply ironic, thoroughly engaged politico-philosophical thriller from a comic writer best known for winning a trio of Leacock Awards…. You won’t sleep until you finish, and then rest won’t come easily. Riveting. Provocative.”
– The Globe and Mail
“Heart-wrenching, fascinating, and scary …. An unflinching, ambitious work.”
– Toronto Star
“A powerful read…. Ferguson is a heavy-weight.”
– NOW Magazine
“Ferguson is a keen observer of landscapes and cityscapes, and has a brilliant ear for dialogue and accent…. you will never see those creative 419 emails in your inbox in quite the same way.”
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