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Transmigration of Timothy ArcherI've read this book once before, probably not that long after it came out in 1982, although I don't remember for sure. I also didn't remember much about it other than the fact that it featured a lot of philosophical talking and a character named Bill who was incapable of abstract thought and who was completely focused on the material and the tangible, especially cars. Funny what makes a lasting impression!

On a second read, I still found Bill a fascinating character, but I found all the characters fascinating. It's a novel of ideas, but it's also very much a novel of character. The first person narrator, Angel Archer (did any of Dick's other novels feature a female protagonist?), is a skeptical, compassionate, conflicted, practical woman -- well-educated and eternally full of self-doubt and the ability to talk herself out of doing what she knows is right. Her best friend, Kirsten, is an older feminist who is acerbic, funny, self-loathing, temperamental, materialistic, and addicted to downers. Timothy Archer, Bishop of California for the Episcopalian Church, is a brilliant, logorrheic, charismatic, patronising, absent-minded intellectual and political activist who is searching for spiritual revelation. He is a heretic who is the head of a church. Kirsten's brother, Bill, is a mentally unstable man with an encyclopedic knowledge of cars and a complete inability to fend for himself. He can see right through Tim Archer's self-serving intellectual bullshit, but only because he's completely unable to follow symbolic logic. The one major character who is a bit of a cipher is Jeff Archer, Tim's son and Angel's husband. He is mostly characterized by his need for his powerful father's approval, but he's another character, like Angel and Tim and to a lesser extent Kirsten, seeking intellectual answers for what are really emotional or spiritual problems.

I had long been under the misapprehension that this was the third volume in the so-called VALIS Trilogy, but it isn't, in fact, a VALIS novel at all. However, reading it right on the heels of three books that were VALIS novels, it's easy to see that it shares the same preoccupation with religious ideas about theophany, revelation, and salvation. The religious ideas discussed in The Transmigration of Timothy Archer are less gnostic than Dick's other religious novels, but they are still often heretical. Early on we learn that Bishop Archer has come to believe that the Holy Spirit does not exist, and in the course of the novel he is tried (but not convicted) of heresy. The other heretical element of the novel is the discovery of scroll fragments that predate the birth of Jesus and contain Christ's wisdom sayings. This seems to prove that Jesus was not Christ. Unlike the lack of evidence for the Holy Spirit, this revelation throws Bishop Archer into a spiritual crisis, although it also ends up giving him hope that he has discovered the pathway to true theophany -- a way to experience the direct Presence of God.

This is a novel about desperate people struggling like mad to find the purpose and meaning of life. It's a story of madness, depression, addiction, spiritual crisis, self-doubt, and suicide. On that level it feels a lot like A Scanner Darkly and the novel VALIS. The emotional terrain is bleak, and Angel tells us right at the beginning, as she goes to a self-help seminar the day that John Lennon is killed, that she has watched everyone she loves die. We then go through this long exploration of religious ideas and relationship failures of various types to learn how Angel has reached the level of despair that introduces the book. In some ways this novel is the ultimate statement of Dick's perspective, and a self-critique as well. Bishop Archer's fantastic ability to endlessly spin ideas and theories about the higher realms and the world beyond is analogous to Dick's ability to tell fantastic tales full of grandiose ideas. Ultimately, the bishop's vast intellectual ability is shown to be a kind of fascinating and absorbing charade, and Angel's epiphany is that what's important in the end is not wisdom but compassion. That could be Dick's philosophy in a nutshell, but his fascination with ideas and knowledge is compulsive. Thus it's impossible for the survivors of this tale, Angel and Bill, to really disengage from Timothy Archer. Like Palmer Eldritch, he seems to have found a way way to invade their lives with his ideas and impractical agenda even after he has died.

This is not a science fiction novel, and it really isn't a novel of the fantastic at all. There are characters who believe that other characters have returned from the dead, but it's entirely possible that they are only imagining it. They may just be nuts, and in fact they probably are. Dick asks us to be compassionate with them. For him, people are always broken and in trouble and in need of help. The search for salvation may be delusional, but we're all looking for it in some form or another. With any luck we'll find a bodhisattva sympathetic to our cause, but in the meantime maybe you could be a bodhisattva too. It might even give you a reason to live.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 11th, 2014 08:43 pm (UTC)
I love this book. Dick said in an interview that he was offered a lot of money to write a tie-in novel to "Blade Runner". He turned down the offer. This is the novel he wrote instead.
Jun. 11th, 2014 08:52 pm (UTC)
I hadn't heard that before! You know a lot of great Dick lore, Mr Hedgehog.
Jun. 12th, 2014 09:39 am (UTC)
t's funny, I don't think of a PKD novel as something that can have been published after the death of John Lennon, or the release of Blade Runner.
Jun. 12th, 2014 03:07 pm (UTC)
I have to admit that I was struck by the post-Lennon aspect too. I was also struck by the fact that Richard Powers was still doing covers in 1982. However, this book actually came out shortly before Blade Runner hit the theaters, and clearly the decision on which thing to write happened well in advance. (I did some reading after learning this, and I saw a quote from Dick saying he had been offered $400,000 for the novelization of the movie, and got a $7,500 advance for Transmigration -- which was substantially less than he would have gotten for an SF novel.)
Jun. 13th, 2014 07:27 am (UTC)
Of course, Timothy Archer is the real Bishop James Pike. My mom knew him. I never met him, so for me PKD's novel will have to do. I think it's one of his best.

Here's an interesting piece by Leonard Nimoy In Search Of... Bishop Pike

Edited at 2014-06-13 07:32 am (UTC)
Jun. 13th, 2014 02:47 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I only started reading about Bishop Pike after reading this novel a second time, and how I see how much Dick took from real life. I think Pike is also mentioned in at least one of the VALIS novels. How did your mom now him?
Jun. 13th, 2014 03:44 pm (UTC)
She is a very devout, active, and hard-working member of the Episcopal church. Pike was her Bishop. She was inspired by him. I don't know how much credit Pike should get for her inspiration, because my mom is awesome and inspirational in her own right, but at the very least he was in the right place at the right time and saying the right things.

Our local priest worked with Bishop Pike and must have known him well. He was active in the same ultra-liberal wing of the church, did much good, and eventually became a bishop himself.

It was when I read this book that I really started thinking of PKD as a local writer. It is so strongly rooted in the place and time and even the church where I grew up.
Jun. 13th, 2014 03:54 pm (UTC)
Yes, Radio Free Albemuth also really feels like a Berkeley book -- I guess because it's autobiographical. VALIS feels like a "local" book too, although like the second half of RFA it's more SoCal based. I noticed that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was another Bay Area story, which is shifted to LA in the movie. Now that I think of it, Man in the High Castle is also Bay Area, at least in part.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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