Book Review

Norman Finkelstein’s Further Adventures is the last of a trilogy of collections centered around Pascal Wanderlust, a “strange, androgynous protagonist” whose “fate is bound to the Immanent Foundation.” We begin with the “Prologue” and are first introduced to the Arch-Mage, who immediately situates us in world of hierarchies and roles:

The Arch-Mage of Nonsense

is at work in his study

shaping an ego

out of old books of poems

bits of gossip

found on the internet

and vague memories

that were once his own.

The importance of the Arch-Mage is almost immediately overturned by his subject and domain, that of “Nonsense.” The oxymoron, the “Arch-Mage of Nonsense” gives the reader an expectation of what is to follow, as Pascal Wanderlust leads readers through the requisite delirium to “bring clay to life.” The prologue doubles as both a frame narrative and as an ars poetica, as the act of art making is intertwined with magic, combining somber tomes and internet gossip, vague memories and a new ego. The Arch-Mage shapes the “ego” not through fables or mythology, at least in the traditional, chronological sense, but through a contemplation of what feels “vague” and “distant.” The resulting lyrics, which reflect upon the role of the poet as a translator, and the role of the poet as a maker equally responsible for the fate of the characters the poet has created, are striking in how they observe rather than make arguments, leaving to the reader his or her imagination of the sphere of the impossible: “These books you wish me to translate: have you / considered that they are not yet written?” or “Everything / that happens next, dear Wanderlust, has already / happened, has all been written in the book.” Finkelstein challenges the predetermination of fate by presenting his signature narrative fragments in lyric form without a clear throughline to be followed.

In his “Afterward,” Finkelstein provides a paradigm of language with which to better understand and to appreciate his poetry. He defines “alchemy” as “magical transformation, the sign of which is code-switching,” through “accretion, accumulation, and gradual revelation of hidden wisdom” and “the portal” as the “sudden dematerialization and rematerialization elsewhere.”

This paradigm is helpful in describing the experience of reading Further Adventures because “alchemy” and “the portal” abound. By alchemy, consider how “Titles / become speech acts, speech acts become / episodes, episodes add up to adventures.” By portal, consider how Finkelstein’s turns challenge the delimitations of our knowledge and imagination through a persistent probing into the politics underlying the Foundation, a fictional dystopia recalling the Leviathan (“I am the Foundation, I say”) and an absolutist state (“you’re going to be here for quite/ a while. The Foundation has a few more / questions for you.”) The portal also pokes fun at the exhaustiveness of the quest for the “ego”: “Have you exhausted the wisdom / found in these books, or are you exhausted.”

The “Afterward” also tells us what Further Adventures is not: “an epic with heroic and villainous characters,” “prophetic book or visionary scripture,” but a “schlemiel.” That self-deprecation notwithstanding, Pascal Wanderlust leads the readers on his further adventures, a dreamlike experience “between fact and legend.” In an interview with Matthew Biberman, Norman Finkelstein explains how his poetry straddles the uncomfortable middle between mainstream poetic lyric and avant-garde poetry.  By that, I understand Finkelstein to mean that, unlike poetry collections with a clear beginning, middle, and end, his adventures are recursive and incomplete, in the sense that we do not land or even approach a finite place. Unlike poetry collections that focus almost exclusively on sound, to the deprivation of meaning, in our traditional sense of the word, we instead have fragments that point to different steps of Wanderlust’s journey.

Finkelstein’s poetic sequences share affinities of the absurdity and humor of the adaption of the fairytale Puss in Boots by Ludwig Tieck and Alice in the Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Like both Puss in Boots and Alice in the Wonderland, Further Adventures feature an anthropomorphized cat, and like much of Romantic lyrical poetry, we have the archetypes of an “old man in a dusty basement,” a female that doubles as a muse / interest, and a protagonist that simultaneously plays both fool (the “schlemiel”) and sage (recalling the namesake Blaise Pascal, French polymath and writer). The journey, even as it starts anew after each sequence, feels uplifting. Finkelstein’s poems are dedicated to his friends, with the imperative “Onward” even when the friend’s dream of Pascal also signifies a morphing to Pascal.

Rather than subscribing to the firm archetypes dictated by station, gender, and age, Finkelstein reshuffles them, and posits a possibility which goes beyond hero-villain, male-female, young-old. Finkelstein reminds us, then, that a dream is both what it describes and what it implies, a double door of meaning. This motif of doubling recurs throughout the collection: Pascal Wanderlust is androgynous, “that boy and girl.” The muse “Margaret” is described as “father as much as mother, / alchemical creator, parental king and queen.” Like Don Quixote battling the windmill, confusion results in Captain Morgenstern calling Pascal: “Mr.–er–Ms. Wanderlust.” The world of Wanderlust is not closed off from the “real world” but incorporates the lingo of corporate speech: “But I think the dybbuk / is right. Liebchen, apocalypse is above my pay grade.” This corporate speech, like references to Montclair and Tesla, delimit the reality that ventures into the world as uniquely Finkelstein’s own, which melds the real and the surreal, the Torah and the tarot, towards what?

That fluidity of Wanderlust means that what is sought is not a tangible goal, or “anima or animus that wars within the chest.” Pascal Wanderlust’s journey is “Not a homecoming, but knowledge of a way home.” This “knowledge of a way home” looks to and beyond the fate prescribed by the occult, the tarot, Egyptian hagiography, or biblical references to the riddles of human existence. Like a tableau of panels that are ill-preserved, we glean through what is presented to us as the spectator of an exhibit or performance, we are never entirely sure where the characters / speaker will turn to next. Instead, like the narrator, we ask, with some urgency: “Pascal, Pascal, what kiss or cure do you desire?”

About the Reviewer

Tiffany Troy is the author of Dominus (BlazeVOX [books]) and the chapbook When Ilium Burns (Bottlecap Press), as well as co-translator of Santiago Acosta’s The Coming Desert / El próximo desierto (forthcoming, Alliteration Publishing House), in collaboration with Acosta and the 4W International Women Collective Translation Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is Managing Editor at Tupelo Quarterly and Book Review Co-Editor at The Los Angeles Review.