‘Lost & Found’ Ponders Profound Grief Alongside Newfound Love

Since getting a booster shot from Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” the grief memoir has become such a hardy genre that it deserves its own nickname — the mournmoir? the dieography? — and its own placarded table at the front of bookstores, perhaps strewn with high-profit-margin items like candles, journals and Kleenex.

Just as for decades there has been a Bad Sex in Fiction award, we might even grow so numb to sorrow that we eventually create the Bad Death in Nonfiction.

It won’t go to Kathryn Schulz, a staff writer at The New Yorker who already collected a Pulitzer Prize and a National Magazine Award for her foreboding feature about the megaseismic threat posed by the Cascadia subduction zone. In her new book, “Lost & Found,” which grew out of a previously published essay, she addresses a more personal cataclysm: the death of her father, Isaac Schulz.

Describing his last moments in a hospital room at 74 (on the earlier side, in these days of sophisticated geriatric medicine, but hardly premature, she acknowledges), Schulz’s prose is not so much purple as lavender: a curtain drawn calmly around the beloved’s body. “I could not stop picturing the way he used to push his glasses up onto his forehead to read,” she writes in an extended passage describing the immediate aftermath. “It struck me, right before everything else struck me much harder, that I should set them by his bed in case he needed them.”

Isaac, absent-minded about the physical world but fluent in six languages, loved to read, casually cracking the spines of paperbacks as others might lobsters. He imparted a fierce intellectual appetite to his daughters that pulses through these pages. (Schulz’s older sister, Laura, is a professor of cognitive science at M.I.T.) Polymathic if not polyglot herself, the author revels in the specificity of figures: We lose an average of nine objects a day, she reports, and spend six months of our lives searching for them; contemplating the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, she notes without shudder that 180 billion planes could nestle comfortably on the bottom of the Indian Ocean.

Kathryn Schulz, whose new memoir is “Lost & Found.”Credit…Casey Cep

Sometimes old-fashioned in her syntax, using phrases like “set about” and “I suppose,” Schulz likes to turn parts of speech over and examine them, like stones. “Cosmopolitan” describes her girlfriend, “in that beautiful root sense of the word: a citizen of the cosmos.” The couple’s more affectionate cat is “exceedingly thigmotactic.” The rest of us procrastinate; Schulz “circumjoviates.” And you might know Venus and Hermes from ancient mythology, but have you been introduced to the more obscure figures Tacita, silent goddess of death, and Anteros, god of requited love?

Isaac, along with modeling erudition, seems to have been a warm and fascinating man, all the more grounded for his considerable itineration: born in Tel Aviv and raised in a kibbutz as the Holocaust decimated much of his mother’s family in Poland, detouring improbably to postwar Germany and then Detroit, selling used clothes in Illinois, jerking soda in Manhattan and deploying to Korea before settling in Cleveland as a lawyer. “He had a booming voice, a heavy accent, a formidable mind, a rabbinical beard, a Santa Claus belly and the gestural range of the Vitruvian Man,” Schulz writes in a model of effective eulogy: homage to the vanished corporeal form; placement in culture’s eternal pantheon. “Collectively, the effect was part Socrates, part Tevye.”

Against such a colorful character, made more vivid by his absence, others can’t help fading.

Schulz strains to describe the state of bereavement, whose scudding emotions are presented as curious novelties but will be familiar to anyone who’s been there. “To be prepared is not to be spared,” she writes, as if needlepointing a pillow. In death’s wake, Schulz finds herself clumsy, anxious, Kübler-Ross angry (“albeit thinly”); she is OK and then not-so-OK and then OK again. “Like anything that goes on for too long,” she admits, “grief is (I don’t know why people don’t talk about this aspect of it more often) unbelievably boring.”

More radically, Schulz’s book torques the grief memoir into a Möbius strip, placing the totalizing experience of loss — to be almost geographically, directionally “at a loss,” as she palpates that particular stone — on a continuum with the summons of romantic and even religious love: with being “found.” Schulz is Jewish; her partner, fellow author and New Yorker staff writer Casey Cep, here identified rather coyly as C., is Lutheran. There are also class and regional differences between the pair, and not since Barnes met Noble has the ampersand gotten such a workout, analyzing the miracle of their conjoining.

The couple’s love story can have the earnest, burbling quality of a wedding journal, filled as it is with cafe chats, a second date lasting 19 days, long hikes, wildflowers, road trips, thigmotactic bedtime cuddles and bursts of pathetic fallacy. “God knows, we were a dappled bunch that day,” Schulz writes of their storm-punctuated nuptials, riffing on Gerard Manley Hopkins. (Elizabeth Bishop’s famous poem about losing, “One Arka,” also prominently figures.)

If you can tolerate a little schmaltz, though, stick with Schulz. Against the current Netflix climate-change satire, “Don’t Look Up,” she does cast her gaze unflinchingly into the heavens — plus down and sideways, even if it leaves her own flanks vulnerable. A mysterious story about a uzunluk finding a meteorite ingeniously boomerangs, coincidences mount, patterns emerge, junk proves valuable and she chooses to “take the side of amazement.” In an ocean of churning cynicism and despair, this is a winning bet.

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