The Usu­al Uncer­tain­ties: Stories 

  • Review
By – March 23, 2020

Not try­ing to resolve con­tra­dic­tions with­in char­ac­ters is usu­al­ly a good idea,” Jonathan Blum said in a recent inter­view with Michael Sil­verblatt on KRCW’s Book­worm. In his debut col­lec­tions of short sto­ries, The Usu­al Uncer­tain­ties, Blum sticks to his advice; the dis­par­i­ty between his char­ac­ters’ thoughts and actions in this long await­ed col­lec­tion makes for engag­ing reads and deeply human stories.

Over the course of twelve sto­ries all writ­ten in a sparse style, The Usu­al Uncer­tain­ties plays with a wide range of nar­ra­tive struc­tures. The fifth sto­ry, I Should Have, Believe Me, All This, The Way I’m Doing It Now,” is told from the per­spec­tive of a men­tal­ly ill man who con­sis­tent­ly stum­bles over his words and his thoughts as he tries to tell his life sto­ry, specif­i­cal­ly the sto­ry of his mar­riage; the tenth sto­ry in the col­lec­tion, Week­ly Sta­tus Report”, is sole­ly com­prised of a newslet­ter writ­ten for a com­pet­i­tive Scrab­ble club, describ­ing the lives of the mem­bers from their chap­ter; and the eleventh sto­ry, A Con­fes­sion in the Spir­it of Open­ness Right from the Begin­ning,” is an email writ­ten by a neu­rot­ic, love-sick man, to the woman he just went out on a sec­ond date with, detail­ing his hes­i­ta­tions through the date and the rea­sons for his hes­i­ta­tions. Hav­ing all these dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tive struc­tures makes it so that each sto­ry feels whol­ly sep­a­rate from the oth­ers, while still, the­mat­i­cal­ly, allow­ing them to speak to one another.

Sim­i­lar­ly, The Usu­al Uncer­tain­ties depicts a wide range of char­ac­ters, many of whom strug­gle with step­ping into new stages of life. In Roger’s Square Dance Bar Mitz­vah,” Roger, the old­est child in a fam­i­ly of five whose father has run off, falls deep into reli­gion to deal with the absence; the nar­ra­tor, Roger’s younger broth­er, is both sym­pa­thet­ic and not, mock­ing his brother’s reli­gious prac­tices at times, and being under­stand­ing at oth­ers: For a light-head­ed sec­ond I thought I grasped the nature of the reli­gious impulse that resided in my broth­er Roger — that maybe he did not mean to be inscrutable and scorn­ful, even if he intend­ed to be out of reach.” In Dig­ni­ty Shores,” the final sto­ry in The Usu­al Uncer­tain­ties, the nar­ra­tor tries to inter­vene on behalf of an elder­ly cou­ple who receive appalling­ly lack­lus­ter treat­ment from their aide. And in The Kind of Lux­u­ries We Felt We Deserved,” a young boy that’s fall­en for his soon-to-be ex-step-sis­ter tries to nav­i­gate his father’s attempt at mov­ing out of his wife’s home.

Ulti­mate­ly, The Usu­al Uncer­tain­ties show­cas­es sit­u­a­tions with­out obvi­ous right or wrong options, as is often the case in life. The char­ac­ters’ attempts at find­ing peace in their ambigu­ous sit­u­a­tions, while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly being uncer­tain of what peace may look like, makes for rich sto­ries that the read­er will be think­ing about long after they put the book down.

Ben­jamin Selesnick lives and writes in New Jer­sey. His writ­ing has appeared in decomP, Lunch Tick­et, San­ta Fe Writ­ers’ Project Quar­ter­ly, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. He holds an MFA in fic­tion from Rutgers-Newark.

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