Jonathan Blum’s short story collection, The Usual Uncertainties, is cohesive in that each story showcases his uncanny observations; a brief paragraph sketch of one character is enough to reveal their essence. Blum can do this for houses too: “The mossy gables, the exalted peeling cornices and pale shingled walls, the quiet inclining street near the river, all gave the house the appearance of being a kind of calm glorious creature, comfortably set on land, ambivalent about drawing attention to itself.” And yet, the enduring irony of the collection is that despite his ability to see things that others might ignore, he falls back again and again on tired tropes and outdated language that makes one wonder: Why is he seeing things selectively?
On one hand, Blum will write things like, “’Indians started living here twenty-five hundred years ago,’” as part of a historical chronology, when he should perhaps use the term “indigenous” or “Native American.” His descriptions of women include sentences such as “Her breasts were the shape of hills coming up out of the 6 and 1 of Villanueva’s shirt,” and “She was looking tight and nasty, and she knew I’d want to see her shake that body.” These descriptions may indeed be true of his characters, but given that the narrator, in this particular story, is a 19-year-old student, perhaps the poeticization of “the shape of hills” is out of place. “Tight and nasty” is also not something one might hear from a 19-year-old, even if older adults might think they do.
The story “A Certain Light on Los Angeles” is highly detailed, drawing upon the senses; it’s also the longest of the twelve in this collection. He again draws on his ability to create a very visible world: scents, soups, orange Guess bags, though, at its core, the story is about a man named Adam who loves the idea of a woman and his progressively reframed need to possess her. We feel Adam’s palpable and inexplicable love for Jeeranun, a Thai woman whom he first thinks is Chinese, and certainly his thought process is well-documented. And yet: there’s an unpleasant fetishization present throughout. Like Lolita, which chronicles Humbert Humbert’s pedophilia so well that readers have a hard time digesting it, “A Certain Light on Los Angeles” represents a similar conundrum of engaging with a believable narrator who thinks in a racist way despite priding himself on not actually acting so.
(Many of Blum’s narrators are Jewish men who come, in one way or another, fetishize Asian women, and though one of them actually spends some time to engage with and question his tendency to do so, its repetition across stories raises eyebrows, eliminating the excuse that this “theme” might be a well-intentioned fluke.)
Some of the stories begin in the middle of the action—which is a perfectly acceptable technique. What makes this approach jarring, at times, is the chaos that often becomes so overwhelming that all the oranges Blum attempts to juggle fall to the floor and explode. “Roger’s Square Dance Bar Mitzvah” blends multiple cultures and boasts around a dozen characters, but understanding what is happening is like peering through fog.
Blum, however, shows range in his narrative styles. One story, “I Should Have, Believe Me, All This, The Way I’m Doing It Now,” is entirely a second-person address to the reader, while “A Confession in the Spirit of Openness Right from the Beginning” is a letter to Mina, a woman with whom the writer has just gone on a date. In the latter, the narrator says “with mental illness it’s not that way. People are ashamed to talk about it. People don’t have the vocabulary to talk about it. They have countless misconceptions. And the larger society reinforces the ignorance and the prejudice.” A fine statement, and a correct one, buried within the writer’s musings about whether he likes all women or just Asian women. At best, Blum’s writing is a testament to the simultaneously conflicting perspectives an individual can have—though at worst, the repetition of such themes is perhaps unflatteringly revealing.
“Panels” and “Dignity Shores” are arguably the best two stories. The former is written in snippets and contains nuggets like “she was always the one leaving. Separating was almost her nature. And yet he, who craved frequent physical touch, had always liked this about her. How isolated she could make herself. What it was to yearn for her, to long.”
Blum is skilled at capturing small, highly specific sentiments that, when printed on the page, simply feel right. One conversation in “Panels,” between a man and a woman after a date, shows how people truly talk in real life: The woman reveals a history of cutting while the man tells her how his mother tried to commit suicide, but none of this occurs linearly—they interject each other and almost appear to not hear the words of the other. Yet sometimes, this is how difficult truths are divulged.
We later meet a woman who formerly sculpted, now makes cotton and hemp aprons, and who has been replaced by another woman who wears “cream-colored sheer blouses and long, gauzy skirts” and makes earrings. It is refreshingly easy to learn a lot about one person in a paragraph’s entirety.
“Dignity Shores” is the most sobering, most difficult read precisely because, like many of the others, it does not rely on tropes. It addressing the sorrows of getting old and of no longer being able to care for the self. The narrator cares for the elderly, and sees that “troubles her [client] the way he’s losing his mind—she clearly loves him—but she’s also, not very subtly, exhausted of his battles and hoping for him to die.” Feelings like this are rarely divulged, and yet more than one person has felt this way. Such writing normalizes that which still remains unspeakable.
Blum sees things, both the uncomfortable and the beautiful. The power of his writing is felt in sentences like “[when] you love someone this way, this one time, you must cast aside every doubt and go for it,” ones that stop short of being cliché. It is a frustrating pity, however, that old, outdated, and tired stereotypes come to, at times, overshadow the quirky details that create microcosms in each and every short story.
The Usual Uncertainties, by Jonathan Blum. Rescue Press, November 2019. 344 pages. $18.00, paper.
Cassandra Luca is a junior at Harvard College studying English with minors in Italian and French. She is the Books Executive for the Arts board of The Harvard Crimson. Find more of her work here, and follow her on Twitter @cassandraluca_