Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer by Philip K. Dick

I am the last living person who knew Bishop Timothy Archer of the Diocese of California, his mistress, his son my husband the homeowner and wage earner pro forma.  Somebody should -- well, it would be nice if no one went the way they collectively went, volunteering to die, each of them, like Parsifal, a perfect fool.

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is called the third book in Dick's VALIS trilogy, though it is as unrelated to the first two novels, VALIS and The Divine Invasion as they are to each other.  What they have in common, rather, is their religious themes, which are overt but never dogmatic--in fact, as heterodox as any book ostensibly about Christianity could be.

The novel is narrated by Angel Archer, the daughter-in-law of Timothy Archer, the Archbishop of the Diocese of California, who, in the novel, has been famous as a crusader for civil rights in the 1960's.  At the novel's beginning, Angel tells us that the three main figures in her life have all died at their own hands: first, her husband and Tim's son, Jeff, who had fallen in love with Archer's mistress Kirsten; then Kirsten; then Archer himself, who died trekking through the Israeli desert with only a couple bottles of soda to sustain him.  Archer dies seeking the truth about a mysterious sect called the Zadokites, whose mysterious tracts suggest that Jesus was not a person but a mushroom which figured in their religious rituals.

Two things stand out about Transmigration, which make it possibly Dick's best book.  The first is the surprising self-awareness it exhibits about the blurred lines between religious belief and religious mania.  VALIS presents a pretty bonkers system of religious thought involving aliens, beams of pink light, and the secretly continued existence of the Roman Empire which, by all accounts, Dick really believed, at least in part.  Yet one of the questions that Transmigration begs us to approach is whether Archer's beliefs are merely delusions.  Archer skips from one belief system to another--from orthodox Christianity, to a quasi-mysticism which allows him to believe that his dead son is communicating to him from beyond the grave, to the mushroom-ritualism of the Zadokites.  Archer is always an admirable figure, courageous and kind; how to we balance that against the fact that he dies in pursuit of the last of these religious ideas?  When do our ideas become dangerous, and how can we tell?

That this trying out of every possible idea to see if it would fit finally destroyed Tim Archer can't be disputed.  He tried out too many ideas, picked them up, examined them, used them for a while and then discarded them... some of the ideas, however, as if possessing a life of their own, came back around the far side of the barn and got him.  That is history; this is an historical fact.  Tim is dead.  The ideas did not work.  They got him off the ground and then betrayed him and attacked him; they dumped him, in a sense, before he could dump them.  One thing, however, could not be obscured: Tim Archer could tell when he was locked in a life-and-death struggle and, upon perceiving this, he assumed the posture of grim defense.  He did not--just as he had said to me the day Kirsten died--surrender.  Fate, to get Tim Archer, would have to run him through...

The second thing that stands out is the strength of the novel's characters, specifically Archer and Angel.  Though Dick is one of my favorite authors, his character-writing has never struck me as strong.  (Who was the main character in Ubik again?)  But Timothy Archer--wise and foolish, compassionate and desperate, principled and gullible--is both memorable and complex.  Angel, who finds herself abandoned by everyone she has loved and left to make sense of what killed them, gives the novel a sense of palpable necessity.  Transmigration was published shortly after Dick's own death in 1982, and it's hard not to read Angel's fear and awe of the forces which come "around the far side of the barn" to get her father-in-law as a relic of Dick's own late crises.  Dick's novels are always intellectually fascinating, but The Transmigration of Timothy Archer stands alone among his works because of the depth of its emotional impact.

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