Books and Life: Reading Chicago and its Lake

by anneMoore on November 1, 2011

In the months after summer’s heat, Chicago’s crisp sunny days pull me, and my dog, to the beach. There’s no one there!

My North Avenue beach is banked by man-made dunes. Get yourself beyond those and the beach offers a wide swath of sand pebbled with crushed shells. Also washed-up wood slabs from wave-smashed piers, a dead fish or two, emptied booze bottles.

Our boat-shaped bathhouse is closed. Nets strung for beach volleyball leagues have been taken down, rentable beach chairs and umbrellas packed away.

What a place to walk! Before me is the city’s cutout skyline, fronted by the seemingly infinite lake. There’s so few people on the paths and the beach on a weekday morning it feels eerily post-apocalyptic. There is the city; where are its people?

The lakefront’s beautiful desolation this morning reminded me of a section of Faulkner’s “The Wild Palms: If I Forget Thee Jerusalem.” Faulkner describes the Midwest’s off-season gift of warmth as “the long sigh toward autumn and the cold.” His doomed lovers overstay the season in their Lake Michigan beachfront shack, and nearly freeze, almost starve.

Dan Chaon’s masterful “Await Your Reply,” gives us a Northwestern University college student presumed dead in Lake Michigan’s frigid waters. We stand over his shoulder as he reads the news story of his probable suicide. Gulp.

In Frederick Exley’s “A Fan’s Notes,” the eponymous narrator spends his Chicago off-hours drinking excessively, bedding beautiful young women whose names he checks scraps of paper to remember. “In the first flush of the morning sun, the city lay spread out to my left, more like a dream than I had ever imagined it….the city gave everything…and I bawled like a goddam madman to be so lucky…”

In the enchanting “The Art of Fielding,” Chad Harbach compares a scholar’s love for literature with Lake Michigan. “Walking along its shore called forth some of the same deep feelings that his reading of Melville did, and that reading explained and deepened his love of the water, which deepened his love of the books.” Unexpectedly, and memorably, the lake becomes this man’s final resting place.

In Patricia Albers’ rich portrait of the abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell, the biographer says Mitchell painted the lake her whole career. “She watched rain clobber the lake, ice lock it up, thunderheads billow above…it shimmered, turquoise and sapphire like a tropical lagoon, or pulsed with dark ochre along its edges…”

“‘The Lake is with me today,’” Joan would say, years after leaving Chicago. “‘The memory of a feeling. And when I feel that thing, I want to paint it.’”

For more Chicago in literature:







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