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The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, Philip K. Dick, Vintage, 1991, 253 pp. (originally published in 1982)

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is Philip K. Dick's final novel. He was working on the outline for a book called The Owl in Daylight, but that was only in a fragmentary state when he died in early 1982. And Dick has certainly written one of the best of his career with this book. It makes me wonder what he might have done had he not died at relatively young age of 53.

Of course, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer mines events in Dick's past, and despite the crammed full nature of Dick's life, there could only be so many books like this one. During the late sixties, Dick became friends with a man named James A. Pike, the Episcopal Bishop of California. Dick drew on the subsequent twists and turns of their friendship for The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, with Pike becoming the basis for Archer. But, as is the case with all of Dick's novels, those who make direct parallels to Dick's life are making a vast if subtle mistake.

Angel Archer is the main character of this novel. She is the daughter-in-law of Timothy Archer and also a widow. Her husband Jeff committed suicide, as did her father-in-law's mistress, Kirsten Lundborg. Angel helped Timothy try to contact Jeff beyond the grave through séances and other means. Timothy Archer himself died in the desert of Israel, searching for evidence of his own theories of the nature of Christ. The novel consists of Angel's narrative of the past, and her current attempts to put her life back together. While that may seem like a somewhat slim story, the book has many of the same strengths as VALIS. In each case, the first person narrative strikes the precisely correct tone that can describe tragedy and involuted theology without losing the reader. Doubt and belief, anger and acceptance... Angel feels it all, and tells it to us in a way that makes the book more than the sum of its plot elements.

And yes, James Pike's son committed suicide. Pike did try to contact his son through occult means, losing his own Episcopal faith in the same general time period. Pike did die in the desert of the Middle East. But Angel Archer is entirely Dick's construction, and might be the first entirely sympathetic female character in Dick's novels. If we want to play the game of looking at Dick's life with regard to this issue, it might go like this. The combination of a lifetime of troubled relationships with women and the place on a pedestal where he put his dead twin sister Jane -- these two things conspired to make the female characters in his novels highly unreal. Then came The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, with Angel Archer and her intense humanness, right at the centre of the book and its perspective. As Sutin says in Divine Invasions, Dick had the "sense of having at last reconciled with the feminine, the anima, within himself" (Divine Invasions, 280). To my mind, the character of Angel Archer is what makes the book so much better than its immediate predecessor, The Divine Invasion.

Dick has some wonderful insights in this book. I loved the scene where Timothy Archer is arguing a metaphysical point, using an analogy to a car, and Bill Lundborg (Kirsten's son) takes the entire exercise on the literal level (129). Both Timothy and Bill would benefit by learning a thing or two from each other, but it simply doesn't happen. It's as if they are speaking different languages. Later, Dick points out a sophisticated variant on the saying that ignorance is bliss. At one point, Angel Archer feels that she has become a character in the opera The Medium, and she says, "That is the trouble with education, I realized; you have been everywhere before, seen everything, vicariously; it has all already happened to you" (152). That seems to be a pertinent warning for our culture.

And so Dick's career came to a close. The Transmigration of Timothy Archer was not published until after Dick's death, but he lived to see its acceptance by a publisher, making it the first mainstream novel with that honour during his life (not counting VALIS for the moment). Fittingly, this last book tells the story of some crazy events and flamboyant people in his past, a past full of such things. But the book has its strength in Dick's ability to blur the categories of fiction and reality, making the labels as meaningless as they might have been to Dick himself.


Last modified: March 3, 1999

Copyright © 1999 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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