Jonathan Blum’s highly anticipated collection, THE USUAL UNCERTAINTIES, is a glorious offering of stories in settings from Los Angeles’ Koreatown to a South Florida country club. Blum’s wise and humane writing carries the reader across a breathtaking range of emotion and circumstance in a way that feels much like the bewildering experience of life itself. An excerpt of the book, followed by Q&A between the author and literary translator Breanna Chia.
A Certain Light on Los Angeles
I met her at a 7-Eleven in Chinatown. She was at the counter, digging through her orange Guess bucket purse, trying to find some cash to buy a bag of jalapeño-flavored potato chips. I was next in line. How much do you need? I said, and pulled out my wallet. Here, I said, and set a twenty-dollar bill on the counter. Go get yourself a bottle of water too. When she turned around to face me, my knees almost gave way. She was that beautiful. She had a pair of pink-tinted sunglasses perched high on her head and was wearing a zipped-up Aeropostale sweat jacket and black leggings. She had bright, tender eyes and dimples at the edges of her smiling mouth. She was tall—almost my height—with wide shoulders, long arms, tapered light-brown fingers, medium-sized breasts, and a generous rear end. I wondered if she was Chinese.
I ran over and got her the biggest bottle of water they had.
I want to pay you back, she said.
I want to take you on a date, I said.
She didn’t seem to understand.
A date, I said. Let me take you to lunch.
That whole week we texted—or rather I kept texting her and she would get back to me hours later or the next day with brief, guarded answers. Her name was Jeeranun. She was Thai. She had been in the U.S. three years. Her job was casino. Sorry her English not good. Okay, let’s have lunch.
I went to pick her up the following Saturday at one p.m. in front of the Albertsons on the corner of 3rd and Vermont, in Koreatown. I didn’t know why she wanted to meet outside a giant supermarket, of all places, but I had decided to go along with the plan. I live off Fairfax, south of Pico, in a neighborhood that, a generation or two ago, was mostly Jewish but is now Ethiopian/Eritrean and mixed professional. I like Koreatown. It’s got vibrant street life and good restaurants. When I arrived at the supermarket, she wasn’t where she had said she was going to be—in front of the lawn and garden center—and I immediately got the feeling I’d been had. I pulled into a yellow-striped No Stopping zone, flicked on the hazards, got out of the car, and began casing the outside of the market. I texted her. A minute passed. Two minutes. It was a clear, sunny day in January, one of the best times of year in Los Angeles, a day after rain, when the city smells green and you feel at ease, as if you’re being warmed and cooled at once. I gave fifty cents to a young panhandler whose eye sockets were ringed yellow; he was leaning back against some cords of firewood. Two-inch black plastic pots of succulents were out for sale in front of the lawn and garden center.
Finally, Jeeranun came out through a sliding glass door, sunglasses on her head, the orange Guess purse over a shoulder, a plastic bag in the other hand. She was bouncing with excitement.
I came over and lightly kissed her cheek. She seemed as touched to be with me as I was to be with her.
She asked where I had parked.
I pointed to my car, a nice German two-seater.
When we got inside, she offered me a cold sixteen-ounce bottle of coconut water. I had never seen such a thing.
It Thailand, she said.
I unscrewed the lid and tasted the drink. Not my thing exactly but I said that I loved it. She showed me the contents of the plastic bag: eight navel oranges and six green mangoes. I kissed her on the cheek again.
Who’s all that for? I asked.
You and me.
Do we really need eight oranges and six mangoes? I asked.
She told me she didn’t like to buy just one of anything. She liked to have lots.
She had on a tight red ribbed sweater, white pants, and tan wedge sandals; her lips were plump at the middle, her long eyelashes curled up slightly; this was the best-looking woman ever to look at me as though we might have a future together.
I couldn’t help but think of Delaney Rubin, my ex-fiancée. Delaney and I had met fifteen years ago when we were juniors at UC Santa Cruz. She had been a women’s studies major and when we were first getting to know each other, she was always pointing out ways that women in our society are objectified, taken advantage of, and underestimated by men. When I would reply to her with what I thought were simple truths, such as, “Why deny it, every man’s goal is to obtain the most beautiful woman he can,” she would blow up at me, saying that’s not man’s nature, that’s the way men are socialized. If men were taught proper respect and value for women from infancy, they wouldn’t think like that. Delaney, like me, had been passed over for a good-looking face. She wore her fine black hair in a pixie cut, which, though flattering, made her head look slightly too big for her body. She worked at a taqueria and played the saxophone. She smoked a lot of pot, loved obscure British female novelists of the eighteenth century, and took forever to come. Even though Delaney had become less fiery in her views over the years, I could still imagine her seeing me now and informing me that the balance of power between Jeeranun and me was tilted way in my favor and that I was out with this woman only because of how she looked. Or maybe, like many other men on the planet, I was looking for a kind, pleasant, nurturing woman who was insecure enough that she could be made subservient to me.
I asked Jeeranun how old she was.
She said thirty-nine. She looked twenty-four. I was thirty-five.
What kind of food would you like for lunch?
Up to you, she said.
No, up to us, I said.
You want Thai food? she said.
Yes! I said.
I was so happy to be out with this lovely woman, elated really, that when I pulled out of the supermarket parking lot onto Vermont Avenue, I didn’t notice an oncoming orange Metro bus barreling up the right lane. Honking loudly, it screeched to a halt instants before it smashed into the side of my car.
Careful! Jeeranun shrieked.
The driver shook his fists at me.
I whipped the car around and floored it.
Minutes later, she had me turn left onto Hollywood Boulevard. Suddenly we were creeping through Thai Town, with its dingy assortment of mom and pop groceries, noodle places, dessert shops, souvenir stands, video stores, and old apartment houses with Z-shaped iron fire escapes and open casement windows. Jeeranun pointed out a four-shop strip mall, where I pulled up in front of a liquor store that bordered a restaurant with Thai lettering on the sign. The restaurant was called Two Thai.
Inside, a waitress greeted us and said something to Jeeranun in Thai, then sat her and me next to the large window at a table that had four kinds of chili out in round condiment jars. Jeeranun asked if I liked hot. I said I did. The food came out one dish at a time. First was a tom yum soup with shrimp in a flaming metal bowl. Jeeranun ladled me a cup of this, with its slivers of lemongrass, galangal, and cilantro, and set it in front of me. Then came a hot spaghetti dish with chili paste and clams, which she served me with fork and spoon. Then came an eggplant dish and then a pancake and finally rice noodles in a thick, black broth that I would later learn had pig’s blood. We ate ravenously, smiling at one another, sucking down noodles, and glancing back and forth.
You’ve got quite the appetite, I said.
She didn’t understand.
You’re hungry, I said, and she nodded happily and sucked down a rice noodle. I was clearly going to have to simplify my English to make communication possible.
Excerpted from THE USUAL UNCERTAINTIES with permission from the author
Breanna Chia: Lorrie Moore says somewhere that, “A short story is about love. But it is not a love story.” These lines kept echoing in my head as I read your collection, with love twisting out of your characters in its myriad forms–courageous and cowardly, self-preserving and self-destructing, perverse and pure–often all at once, and often in ways that determine the characters’ fates. Does that description of the short story feel true to you?
Jonathan Blum: Yes, very much so. When I think of “a love story,” I think of something formulaic, predictable. But yes, love–that feeling we all have in our hearts toward other people that we hope will be returned–drives stories, drives lives, makes us choose whether to take the safe course or the risky one, the initiating course or the restrained one. In my observations, love is often not reciprocal. It is out of balance. Or it is reciprocal for a time and then goes out of balance. I have seen reciprocal love span decades, so I know it happens. But it’s not common. Many long relationships are deeply unhappy. The narrator of “A Certain Light on Los Angeles,” who has never found himself in an enduring relationship that he felt he belonged in, says to himself at one point, “I had so much love in my heart. Where was it supposed to go?” That is a feeling I suspect many people have had, even married people and others who, on the surface, have an enviable relationship. Models of family love are the models that we bring with us into the world. If your parents had a terrible divorce, if both sets of grandparents had nasty and troubled marriages, you are at a bit of a setback. I have spent my writing life examining varieties of love and exploring what it might take for two people to be fortunate enough to become the other’s proper partner. Of course, there are other important and dynamic varieties of love–friendships, for one. But I think this book concerns itself primarily with romantic and family love.
BC: Your stories offer a deliciously wide range in form and narrative mode: from a free-wheeling one-sided conversation by a jazz musician, to a weekly Scrabble newsletter, to two devastating stories told from the perspectives of children–in one of them, our young narrator takes pains to be as reliable as any narrator could be, and in the other story, we hope he is less so, as we’re led into a topsy-turvy world full of domestic dangers and misery. Is form often part of your initial idea for a story?
JB: Form is immensely important to me. I started writing stories when I was 6 years old, and those stories had forms. I wrote them as a series–one of my favorite forms. “Panels,” in THE USUAL UNCERTAINTIES, was conceived as a series.
I sometimes have a form in mind from the beginning. Other times the form emerges.
I have one story in the book that takes the form of an email that a man writes to a woman after they go on their first date. They met online. He is now reflecting on their date and asking her out again. We don’t know if his email will get the desired result. I started with the form of the email. I didn’t know where the email was going, but I knew the email would be organized around what he was trying to say to her and how he was expressing it. I also discovered I needed to not have his voice take over the whole story. In other words, I had to find a way to give the woman a chance to tell her own side of what they talked about.
With “Weekly Status Report,” I started out with the form of an electronic newsletter, which a longtime competitive Scrabble club director sends out weekly to the members of the club. He has a way of speaking and not speaking in these newsletters. I also knew that one of the older members of the club had recently died. Besides that, I flew by the seat of my pants. The principal character of Sue Kararuk, who also dies, didn’t come into my thoughts until the story was well underway. But once she appears, I think the form of the story becomes critical because of the limitations of expression that the form imposes on the speaker. If the speaker felt he could express how he really felt about Sue Kararuk, you would have a very different, and perhaps less affecting, story.
And yes, the speech of the 9-year-old protagonist of “The White Spot” is limited by, among other things, his need to be faithful to everything–every detail–his grandmother has entrusted him with about her life up to, during, and after the Holocaust.
BC: For all of their variety in form, your stories have in common an astonishing emotional and tonal capaciousness. They make us laugh, even as they’re breaking our hearts. The reader is moved from joy to grief, disdain to compassion, in the space of a line. Would you talk about this?
JB: When I am writing a character who is in certain ways unlikable, I insist on giving him enough good and sympathetic qualities that the reader cannot possibly dismiss him as being merely a “bad” character. Of course, characters who act almost entirely badly–such as Iago in Othello–can be very compelling. But I don’t tend to write that way. I think a valuable piece of advice for writers is, “Use the whole instrument.” Meaning try to search out as many dimensions of each character as you can. If a character is causing another character suffering in a story, how does the character causing the suffering account for his own actions? Give him the chance to speak for himself. One of the beautiful things about writing fiction is that you can make room for different intersecting characters to tell their own versions of why they are acting the way they are. Or you can just have them act significantly without any explanation. It is also possible to leave room in a character’s accounts of himself for a reader to infer things about the character that the character doesn’t understand about himself.
BC: With your permission, I’d like to use the title of this collection in my epitaph: “It was the usual uncertainties.” But let it be asked: Is there any “getting to the bottom of things,” Jonathan Blum? It seems to me that your stories decline any kind of simple judgment or final resolution.
JB: I hate to think of you being dead, Breanna. So let’s pretend it’s not going to happen.
For me, there is no stable bottom of things. Stability is a thing that cannot be counted on to last. I’m someone who has dealt with hearing voices, seeing things that are not there, terrifying paranoia, loss of ability to take care of myself because of psychosis and other causes, and so on. Throughout my 20s and 30s, I often thought I was going to cross over into madness and not be able to find my way back, which, were it not for effective psychiatric medication and attention, might have happened. Perhaps because I myself have wanted to have the open destiny of life, I try to give my characters the open destiny of life. At any moment, I try to give them the freedom to decide what they are going to do next, within the constraints, of course, of who they are (which I am, in part, making up as I go along). Nothing pleases me more when writing than to discover that a character has a dimension of her personality that I didn’t recognize initially but that I can now see clearly. I don’t tend to favor texts that explain or interpret themselves for the reader. I think this simplifies the writing and deters other readings. For me, a good story gives the reader plenty to observe and consider, and ultimately the reader interprets the story for herself.
BC: I happen to know that you’re hard at work on a novel, one that appears to have grown out of “New Pocahantas,” a short story from this collection. Would you tell us something about its setting and what it’s about, and how you came to realize that the characters in “New Pocahantas” needed more room to sprawl out?
JB: Sure. When I entered the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, in 1996, I wanted to write a novel inspired by the homicide of a woman I knew but not very well. The woman had two young children. She was a friend of my family. While at the Workshop, I didn’t write the novel. I wrote other things. Later I wrote the short story, “New Pocahontas,” that you are referring to. I am using three characters from that story–a woman and her two young children–in a novel that I am writing now. I have dreamed of this novel for a long, long time but now that I’m writing it, it has taken on a life of its own. Many of my plans have been cast aside. Others have surfaced. The three characters from “New Pocahontas” are not identical with their namesakes in the novel. The story is set in Napa. The novel is set in L.A. I’ve been working on it now for more than two years. It’s a big undertaking, but I am happy to be working on it because it involves a lot of my central concerns as a person and a fiction writer.
BC: Finally, what books have your attention at the moment?
JB: I’ve been reading a book of poems by an old friend, James Cagney, who’s from Oakland, called Black Steel Magnolias in the Hour of Chaos Theory. I’ve been moving around in Stamped from the Beginning, a history of racist ideas in the United States. I recently finished There There, a novel set in Oakland. I am often reading various nonfiction books as research for my novel. I just ordered one on the history of housing segregation in Los Angeles. And for a couple upcoming workshops I’m teaching, I’m going to be assigning the openings of a number of novels, so I’ve been happily revisiting Housekeeping, The Vegetarian and others, deciding which ones I’m going to use.
Breanna Chia is a Chinese-English translator specializing in Chinese modern and contemporary art. She also translates literary fiction and essays.
Jonathan Blum is the author of THE USUAL UNCERTAINTIES, which was named one of the 15 best short story collections of 2019 by Electric Literature and one of the best fiction books of Winter 2019 by Iowa Public Radio. THE USUAL UNCERTAINTIES has also been featured on KCRW’s “Bookworm.” In addition, Blum is the author of LAST WORD, a novella. He lives in Los Angeles, where he teaches fiction writing classes. He can be reached at jonathanblumwriter.com.