Monday, November 17, 2014

Complex and Compelling: Bonnie ZoBell's "What Happened Here"

This review is followed by an interview with Bonnie ZoBell.   Scroll down to view the interview first.

Bonnie ZoBell’s novella,“What Happened Here,” opens her collection of the same name, and her first page description of the PSA Flight collision with a Cessna in 1978 over the city of San Diego anticipates a collision of characters, the breaking up of relationships, the falling down of spirits—the kind of tragedies that permeate the stories that follow. What else is revealed is how such calamities, large and small, are endured and overcome with love and kindness.
 “The explosion was instantaneous—an enormous fireball whooshed into the sky, a mushroom of smoke and debris. Scraps of clothing leaped onto telephone poles, body parts fell on roofs, tray tables scattered across driveways. Airplane seats landed on front lawns, arms and legs descended onto patios, and a torso fell through the windshield of a moving vehicle.” 
Each of the eleven pieces (ten stories as well as the novella) take place in that North Park neighborhood of San Diego around thirty years after the PSA jet crashed into the ground. The ghosts of those who died linger in the shadows, behind palm trees, along the streets at dusk. The macaws who also haunt the area as they chatter and soar add a hopeful counterpoint.

The lingering impact of disaster impacts three specific characters in the novella: Lenora, a woman struggling to find herself after years of feeling discounted and unloved, her husband John who battles the “monster” of manic-depressive disorder, and their neighbor, Archie, who is the most obsessed with the crash even though he was not present for the disaster which took place years before. The author does a lovely job of showing the precarious state of the newly married couple’s relationship through references to Lenore in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” as John woos Lenora.

The raven and the macaws seem to represent the contrast of the blackness of a monster against the bright hope one can find in life. That hope comes from Archie, the complaining neighbor, who in the end manages to reach John in his depressive state in a way Lenora cannot.

In the second story of the collection, the eponymous Uncle Rempt, brings hope to Susan who is trapped in a narrow, constricted life. “Bloodstone.”
He folded it into my hand. “You need to keep the thing, sweetheart, living with that brother of mine. …The stone of courage, they say. Destroys the wall of prisons, opens all doors.” 
Like the North Park,macaws,Uncle Rempt, in his “Area 51” written in metallic silver on his t-shirt…his blue velvet jacket,” is full of color. He even sleeps “in the store room with a bunch of colored glass.”

One of the strongest pieces in the collection is “People Scream.” The shriek that shatters the calm one Wednesday night at the Center for Life haunts both the receptionist Heather and the story itself. She is filled with self-doubt—perhaps even self-loathing—and it feels inevitable that she works where other self-doubters, those who have turned to addiction, have come to recover. She works here for the wrong reasons--to meet men--and she’s come to the wrong place. Of course, she does meet them, including Wally, including the homeless drunk in her car.

Again the yin/yang of tragedy and hope finds its way into Zobell’s work. What Happened Here is rife with unhappy women who stick to their broken men and a few who hide from them like Lolly in “Rocks.” Yet these women are to be admired for their grit, their ability to forgive.

Hope and tragedy seep together in this group of stories, creating a kind of sunrise or sunset with macaws winging toward the reader or away. Zobell pens a line in her piece,“This Time of Night,” that sums up her work in general: “The evening is as close as it can be to darkness while still being light.”

Press 53 published Bonnie ZoBell's connected novella and stories, What Happened Here, in February 2014. She’s won such honors as NEA, a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, and the Capricorn Novel Award. She received an MFA from Columbia University and currently teaches at San Diego Mesa College. She is an Associate Editor at The Northville Review and at Flash Fiction Chronicles. Her collection The Whack-Job Girls (Monkey Puzzle Press) portrays a posse of women who don't fit in or are deeply disconnected from society with dark humor.


bzobell said...

Thank you so much, Gay, for this wonderful review and interview! I appreciate your generosity. Binnue

Susan Tepper said...

This book will stay in your mind. The plot and characters are out of the ordinary, and will 'roost' inside you the way the bird does on its dramatic cover.

bzobell said...

You're so poetic, Susan! Thank you very much.