Friday, 2 August 2013

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer

Philip K. Dick The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982)

This was Dick's final book, alternately either the third of the thematic trilogy begun with VALIS and The Divine Invasion, or else just a regular novel with that lost third part actually being The Owl in Daylight which he sadly never got to write.

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is effectively a late mainstream novel, containing no specific element demanding classification as science-fiction, another journey through Dick's version of our world told roughly as the story of Bishop James Pike, a friend of the author in real life. Pike was a vocally liberal and thus inevitably controversial Episcopalian minister and occasional civil rights campaigner of the 1960s who famously and tragically died whilst searching for proof of the historical existence of Jesus Christ in the deserts of Israel; which is more of less what becomes of Bishop Archer here, with the twist being his apparent transmigration to the body of his friend, the somewhat schizophrenic Bill Lundborg, an obvious author stand-in. However, Bill is almost certainly no more able to offer an objective view of reality than the author, and so the worth of his testimony remains ambiguous.

Dick himself appeared in a lot of his own fiction, particularly the later novels, and the tendency is pronounced with this cast of characters, most of whom can be identified as different aspects of the author; and yet despite the implausibility of all these people each being equally familiar with Goethe, Thomas Aquinas, and the German language, it holds together because Dick writes such a compelling argument. Unusually The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is told from the first person viewpoint of a female character apparently representing Dicks' scepticism. Essentially he seems to be stood back, taking a look at himself and all of his manias and asking if it's really been worth it, if any of it amounts to anything more than Bishop Pike's doomed quest for what was most likely a mirage. Specifically, despite future plans laid out in Dick's letters of the time, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer reads like the work of a man who knows he is writing his last book:

I am terribly frightened of death, I thought. Death has destroyed me; it isn't Sri Krishna, destroyer of all people; it is death, destroyer of my friends. It singled them out and left everyone else undisturbed. Fucking death, I thought. You homed in on those I love. You utilized their folly and prevailed. You took advantage of foolish people, which is truly unkind. Emily Dickinson was full of shit when she prattled about 'kindly Death'; that's an abominable thought, that death is kind. She never saw a six-car pile-up on the Eastshore Freeway. Art, like theology, a packaged fraud. Downstairs the people are fighting while I look for God in a reference book. God, ontological arguments for. Better yet: practical arguments against. There is no such listing. It would have helped a lot if it had come in time: arguments against being foolish, ontological and empirical, ancient and modern (see common sense). The trouble with being educated is that it takes a long time; it uses up the better part of your life and when you are finished what you know is that you would have benefited more by going into banking.

Whilst this may seem to take the opposite view to that which Dick had written in VALIS and others, it should be remembered that even at his most manic he remained, to a greater or lesser extent, a passive observer within his own consciousness.

He said one time in group therapy that all he wanted to be was a pair of eyes bugging out from the wall, so he could see everyone but no one could see him. Just an observer, not a part of what was going on, ever.

To suggest that Dick's religious understanding was no more than a thought experiment, trying on a theological world for size, seems quite wrong and overly simplistic, although I've probably said as much myself back when I was a bit more stupid. Whatever he believed at any given time was subject to revision and evaluation, and no part of it was considered sacrosanct, which this book shows. Unlike the best of Dick's oeuvre it tends to be somewhat lacking in humour, but once you've read it, you should understand why; and saddest of all, after nearly a decade of struggles and freak-outs, it reads like he was finally beginning to level out.

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