Apart from gangster lore, I know very little about Chicago, but I wasn’t far into Rachel Louise Synder’s debut novel What We’ve Lost is Nothing, when I realized that the action is set in a real community. Oak Park has its very own Wikipedia page, and according to the book’s intro (which I didn’t read immediately in case it contained spoilers–it didn’t), “Oak Park is a suburb in flux. To the west, theaters and shops frame posh homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. To the east lies a neighborhood trying desperately to recover from urban decline. Although the community’s Diversity Assurance program has curbed the destructive racial housing practices that migrated from Chicago’s notorious west side over the past decades, cultural and racial integration has been tenuous at best.” I’m including that entire quote because I can’t do better. The name “Austin Boulevard” also crops up in the novel, and I discovered that this road is the border between the crime-ridden community of Austin (termed Chicago’s deadliest neighbourhood) and the community of Oak Park. So who wants to live in Oak Park, the neighbourhood which boasts the largest number of Frank Lloyd Wright designed residences? Come on raise your hands….
What We’ve Lost is Nothing focuses on a neighbourhood mass burglary that takes place one afternoon in Oak Park’s fictional Ilios Lane, a cul-de-sac of eight houses–all of which are burglarized. The incident challenges the lives and beliefs of the residents as shock waves from the burglary wash through the neighbourhood and issues of race and class float to the surface.
The premise of the novel sounded … well… interesting. Burglaries are traumatic events for anyone, and that trauma goes far beyond the loss of stuff that can be replaced. Sometimes items that are worth next to nothing, but hold immense sentimental value, are taken, and then there’s the sense of violation that remains long after the event. For the residents of Ilios Lane, however, the burglary has even deeper ramifications as the residents begin to question whether or not they can live a safe middle-class existence right next to the crime-ridden community of Austin, located on the borders of Oak Park. This is especially true for Susan McPherson who’s an agent at a housing office and who believes wholeheartedly in “diversity assurance.” She spends her days showing apartments to young couples, proud of her “progressivism,” assuring them that the neighbourhoods are safe. She believes in her sales pitch until the burglary tells her otherwise. Meanwhile, her husband, Michael, begins to feel that he has to ‘do something,’ and his inner fascist awakes.
The novel begins the day after the burglaries and then follows various characters for the 24-hour fallout after the event. Mary McPherson, a cheerleader, was cutting school with Sofia, a Cambodian friend, and the two girls were high on Ecstasy, under the dining room table during the course of the burglary. Another couple, the Kowalskis, were on holiday, others were at work, and one man, Arthur Gardenia, the novel’s most sympathetic character, who suffers from Hemeralopia, was at his usual daytime post– upstairs in the dark. He heard noises downstairs but was too afraid to investigate. The items stolen from his house are without value to the thieves, but the loss crushes Arthur and tests the limits of his already-fragile existence.
Who goes into a pawnshop in search of used notebooks? What was the street value for such a personal thing? Arthur fought waves of nausea and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. He couldn’t even search for them himself, his vision was too poor. They were simply gone. He sat on his bed, fighting a growing sense of helplessness, waiting, it might seem, until the sanctity of his haven was restored, the one place he felt he could emerge from his own helplessness. This, too, he had to admit, was what had been invaded. Not his home, but his sense of security.
Meanwhile Mary finds that Caz, the school lothario, is attracted by her new-found notoriety and increased “social capital.” Understanding that the burglary “catapulted her into Caz’s periphery,” she’s desperate to hang on to that attention.
While the novel, with its emphasis on class and race has a very interesting premise, I wish the plot had spent more time on some of the other residents; additional development with some of the more neglected characters would have produced a more even story. We see that for some residents of Oak Park, life there is an arrival, a step up into the middle-class, but for others, it’s a daily fight to keep their heads above water. While the burglary realistically brought some issues between the neighbours to the surface, the whole diversity issue was hammered too heavily. It was there front and central immediately through geography and Mrs McPherson’s employment, and the additional elements (particularly her run) moved the story from incident to cliché. The portrayal of the Cambodian family was also weak.
Unfortunately, there seemed to be a little too much emphasis on Mary and Caz, and aren’t cheerleaders, by their very role, popular? At least that was my impression, but here Mary is painted as a bit of a wall flower who’s desperate for Caz’s attention. The final scene between Caz and Mary was far too extended and resulted in an unfortunate and not entirely believable conclusion. On the positive side, I liked the way the novel showed that the residents all led fairly fragile existences for one reason or another, and that these lives were shattered by the burglaries. If you’re on the bottom levels of society, suburbia may seem enviable, an impossible dream, but middle-class life brings its own nightmares, and the author explored that aspect of the story well. Also of note are the fast-forward moments which give us glimpses into the futures of some of the characters, and the insertion of the listserv comments where various paranoias and beliefs emerge, and everyone unleashes an opinion they might not express face-to-face.