Suffering is the core of The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, a novel published just months after Philip Dick’s death in 1982. This is a book written by an author sure of his abilities, one who could confidently make this novel about big ideas turn on his characters’ struggles to control the trivialities of their day to day lives. While they attempt to make sense of the nature of God and unravel the mysteries of Christian teaching, they confront the questions that must have puzzled even Jesus’ own early advocates: is joy possible when good people are randomly confronted with confusion, pain, and death? Dick tries to locate a mushy but viable middle ground in this sad, nimble, and touching novel. Opening on the date of John Lennon’s assassination, Dick writes to commemorate the grinders, the survivors who manage to keep waking up, day after day, despite knowing that life often destroys those who dream too large.
The book is ostensibly based on the life and times of Timothy Archer, the iconoclastic American Episcopalian bishop of California in the 1960s whose unending search for truth led to his becoming friends with Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., advocating for the rights of women, homosexuals, and the transgendered, and time in the national spotlight. The quest for knowledge led him also to adopt a number of intellectual positions that conflicted directly with his duties as a representative of the Episcopalian church — for example, he was brought to trial for heresy for openly questioning the existence of hell and the Holy Ghost. The character of Bishop Archer was based almost entirely on the life of Bishop James Pike, Dick’s friend, who, like his fictional counterpart, died of exposure in Israel’s Dead Sea Desert searching for the sources of early Christian doctrine. Bishop Archer is the bright flame in this book, the Gatsby who pulls in everyone he encounters — not because he’s influential and wealthy, but because his personality is that rare combination of knowledge and empathy, a true man of God who recognizes no difference between the important writer and the indigent cancer patient. The actions of Bishop Archer form the arc of the book, and his deeds are a mirror to the other characters. They struggle to shape their own individual visions for their lives because they must work in the shadow cast by a giant they love.
Angel Archer, the bishop’s daughter-in-law and the narrator of the novel, becomes one of Dick’s most realistically drawn characters. She’s tough, articulate, and well-read. While those around her succumb to suicidal impulses and mental illness she survives by searching her mind for poems and plays she’s read and committed to memory. She finds uncomfortable parallels between books and her life. She values her education and her self-identification as a “Berkeley intellectual” but makes light of her own pretension, telling us that she’s read all the long books but remembers nothing about them. Do we become apathetic to our own experiences if we’ve read previously about something similar? Angel fears ennui but describes her own artistic awakening as a ridiculous mixture of pleasure and pain — an agonizing night spent reading Dante’s Commedia while drinking a bottle of bourbon to dampen the pain of an abscessed tooth. Aware that intellectual exercises and games both trivial and consequential have led to the deaths of her husband, the bishop, and his mistress, she still can’t escape her own self-made prison of words. “The problem with introspection,” she states while contemplating her own death, “is that it has no end.” When nobody is left, she soldiers on, dedicating herself, a fragile shell, to driving and working and walking and talking, a person “who records on a notepad the names of those who die.”
Like the narrator, this book reveals its depth rapidly, in spurts of astounding erudition and scholarship. Dick writes masterfully about nuances of early Judaic law and the formation of Christian thought, illustrates the petty jealousy, kindness, and warmth that seems inherent to certain friendships between between intelligent, rival women, and indicts our perception and treatment of mental illness. He quotes John Donne, Henry Vaughn, and discusses Virgil and Goethe without arrogance and without disturbing the flow of his story. Like his best works — A Scanner Darkly, The Man in the High Castle, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is fully drawn and completely real. His best works seem to be filled with screwed up people trying to get by in a world that has been arbitrarily fucked up by war or technology or drug abuse. This one is distinctly alive not because it’s set in an alternative world, but in sunny California that existed just three decades ago, close to the environs we currently abide. A beautiful, moving coda from a man whose vision and prose changed and continues to challenge American writers.