“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.