What Happened Here
by Bonnie ZoBell
Press 53, 2014
ISBN-13: 978-1941209004, 192 pp., $17.95 paperback
In Bonnie Zobel's alluring collection, readers are taken through a series of stories set in the North Park area of San Diego, where in 1978 an airline crashed in a horrific tragedy. Taking us through the perspectives of a widely varied host of characters, the author paints a picture of a neighborhood where a tragedy still haunts the lives of inhabitants who were never there to witness the crash to begin with.
The book opens with a novella whose title shares the title of the book itself. Lenore narrates the story, which follows her relationship with a charming but somewhat disturbed man named John, who feels particular anxiety about the crash although he himself never witnessed it. The author highlights the complexity of their relationship in the looming ghost of the traumatic plane crash; John is a married man with a daughter when the two meet, whereas Lenore was abandoned by her father in her youth. The most noteworthy "set-up" moment for the rest of the collection is when a character in the neighborhood hosts a somewhat macabre commemoration for the crash; in this scene, the narrator offers snapshots of characters living in North Park who will reappear in later narratives.
This quality of recurring characters is a particularly exciting aspect of this book. One of the things that makes a really great album of music as opposed to a pretty good one is when you can pick any one song from that album and love it, while at the same time, you can listen to the album from start to finish gives the listeners an even more transcendent experience. So it goes with Bonnie ZoBell's What Happened Here. What separates this collection from scores of other collections of short fiction is the individual strength of each story in the collection coupled with the inherent interconnectedness of all of them. Not only does the connectedness of the narratives create a greater, more satisfying narrative that transcends the sum of each particular story, but it also emphasizes the connectedness that the neighbors of North Park share in the much-later aftermath of the plane crash. As characters return to later stories, so too does the image of the macaw and the lingering spirit of the crash. ZoBell's drawing of characters, too, is masterful. The author captures the voice and vernacular of characters from California youth to the traumatized Edgar, an older man who was living in North Park during the time of the crash.
Also noteworthy is ZoBell's prose style. There is an unadorned vividness to the way she writes, which is to say that she paints a colorful picture using compelling, yet unpretentious, diction. There is a no-nonsense quality in the way ZoBell conveys information, and she manages to get a lot of exposition out in a little bit of space. However, the prose occasionally runs the risk of conveying too much information, and smooth syntax is sacrificed for too much detail. In "Nimbus Cumulus," one of the stories toward the middle of the book, the amount of information can become particularly overbearing and confused. This is most often not the case. In other words, although at times readers may need to re-read a sentence to overcome difficult syntax, this is worth the wonderful balance ZoBell overall has of painting an extremely detailed picture without the prose being over-the-top.
All in all, What Happened Here is an enriching read. The intensity of detail will make readers feel, by the end of the book, that for better or for worse they know what it's like to spend a lifetime in North Park.—Jacob Budenz