“A Scream in the Ear from a Passing Car”: Dustin Cole on IN SINGING, HE COMPOSED A SONG, a new novella by Jeremy Stewart

Jeremy Stewart’s newly released experimental novella is set in late 1990s Prince George, British Columbia, during the chilly month of November. It features the high school student protagonist, John Stevenson. John’s a rocker, dope smoker, cigarette “breather,” poet, and slacker. John’s a walker. He operates as the ponderous fulcrum of In Singing, He Composed a Song, wherein a dramatic event in his life is retold from different points of view. Falsely accused of selling drugs on school grounds, John pretends to attempt suicide, is maced and arrested by the RCMP, then committed to the Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit at Prince George Regional Hospital. Here his adolescent whimsy collides with the rigid architecture of the psychiatric ward, and corresponding procedures executed by representatives of the Canadian public healthcare system.

John acts out a noncommittal suicide. Public health officials perform their duties. While performance is definitely a theme in this book, and John is the principal character, the major concern does not seem to be either. Stewart’s book is undoubtedly a meditation on consciousness. John, then, is an escutcheon representing consciousness internal and consciousness externalized: the growing changing fluid failing wishing dreaming self. In a compact narrative related by a handful of witnesses, John represents this kind of telling on an individual level, providing at least two perspectives. His interior thoughts are presented in unrhyming, often enjambed couplets, like “movie frames” that “snap in the pickets.” Prose sections are told by John in the first-person past tense. There are extracts from an interview cassette made by John and his friend Simon after the event, about what appears to have been more than an event, but a cluster of micro events. Fragments of reports by John’s psychiatrist, Dr Jalil, are imbedded in John’s couplets, and also given in full, written while John is committed to the “funny farm,” as he calls it. Finally, there are extracts from a handmade get-well card John’s friends make him, also imbedded in his versified thought forms. This polyphonous narrative method is complimented by how John engages with the small city of Prince George through an unusual, eclectic, and creative use of language, emphasizing the role that place plays in the mind.

As a fellow denizen of the north, the book’s early winter setting is familiar to me. And not only the cold weather, but the surrounding wilderness overlapping and intertwined with the human built domain. A page in Stewart’s book depicts this kind of exchange:

I found five owls
in the woods with James

we came upon their clearing
to find them perched       

quietly on the sparse trees
snow patchy on the ground

one in the centre had horns
on his head

we eyed one another for a minute
& then, one by one, they flew away

into the trees
into the air

Stewart orders the wild picture: five owls, arranged symmetrically, the horned one in the middle, and they fly away neatly one at a time. It’s true the northern towns and cities are so limited and brief that they always seem like incursions on the ageless permanent land, not the other way around.

This limitation forces people into themselves, into their minds, into a different wilderness, that of their subjectivity, torturous and lonely to be sure, but distinctive, sometimes even missing parts of speech, and all the more vital and necessary because of that:

& everywhere all the time the sense
my dreams are continuous with my

that the stars are a text, the waves
in the carpet, stared into

black cloud at edge of hands
where light falls off, ceases

to reflect, turns inward, inward
on inward on inward to black

hole, the door under the stairs
unsayable at last, incommensurable

The stars crank forever, and the light doesn’t stay or stick, but falls away from matter, spirals inward uncertainly, like the story’s different perceivers struggling to grasp the event, or cluster of micro events, unable to say for sure.

Subjectivity precludes sound investigation. Whether as physical discomfort, through the flawed memory of a stoner, or under the pressure of institutional guidelines, we catch glimpses of an episode involving a person, but we never lock on because the episode is fluid and the person is evolving and we are under the same pressures and limitations. John’s thoughts are tousled by a nimble grasp of English, like a plastic bag caught up in the wind. His perspective in prose is also internal, but focused on external happenings, which are the book’s most biting, uncomfortable sections, such as him stumbling down a steep trail in shoes with no grip and only pine boughs and thorns to hold on to. John’s cassette interview with his friend Simon is anything but reliable, with Simon confusing order of action and John actually prompting and correcting Simon on tape. Dr Jalil’s reports about John are instructive and formally written. They provide scaffolding around John’s character, but the doctor’s official style and professional concerns give only the basic dimensions of John’s identity, whereas the rendering of John’s thought patterns—spectral, lyrical, fractured, worried, interrogative, far-grasping—catch the curves, edges, drops, and inversions, the cadence and image of an active, developing mind:

I became a riff of my own voices in layers like leaves
in spring after the snow is gone

I can see all my different colours, green gold brown
rotting there, becoming something else in time

He understands himself through the loud, hypersensitive music of his era, and in the landscape that is place for him. Compare this moment of self-awareness with one of Dr Jalil’s statements, at once sturdy in clarity and reductive in claim:

As regards suicidal ideation, John informs me that the suicide gesture was an impulsive act, and that he saw no other options. He does appear to appreciate that he overreacted to the circumstances.

Just as the light slides off the surface, the eye not able to get purchase on the form, Stewart’s narrative method disables any true reconstruction of John’s misadventure. This narrative (de)construction is achieved by fictional and nonfictional compiling, with the insertion of photographs. The composited structure requires investigative techniques but has to turn them “inward on inward on inward” in service of psychological exegesis. At John’s band practice there are verses that could’ve been written in ballpoint on a three-ring binder:

fuzz grunge cosmic meltdown
& rainbow puke in the dust

whip me up a sludge pancake
for a microdot eye ziggurat

snap out of a gonzo head
space titan your astreroid belt

Heavy contrast is staged between the zany nuance of juvenilia and a stern, logical implementation of mental health policy, expressed architecturally when John comes into his cell at the psych ward:

There was a slab that was part of the wall & the floor that raised up like a bed & it had a side corner slab like a bedside table.

Nobody would want to sleep on that and dream.

The novella begins with a photograph of his cell’s wide steel door and high up in it a disproportionately small window. Xeroxed, grainy, the image and its shoddy reproduction signify the idea of institution as well as depict it. This door is the first thing we encounter. Finishing, flipping back to the beginning, I realize that opening the book is opening this forbidding door to walk out of the cell in a waking revery, discharged upon page 2, where not far down I encounter four evocative lines about the north—about how the north calmly and indelibly occupies the mind of a northerner:

Night movies. Walking in trees, parks, rivers.
Flying above the Fraser to the lunar ghost shed.

Laura & I are going downtown. We are neon
blue. A scream in the ear from a passing car.

In Singing, He Composed a Song, by Jeremy Stewart. Calgary, Alberta: University of Calgary Press, September 2021. 88 pages. 15 illustrations. $19.99 USD, paper.

Dustin Cole is the author of the novel Notice, published by Nightwood Editions, and the chapbook Dream Peripheries, published by General Delivery. He has also contributed writing to BC BookWorld and The Ormsby Review.

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