The Transmigration of Timothy Archer: Explores madness, suicide, faith, the occult

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Transmigration of Timothy Archer by Philip K DickThe Transmigration of Timothy Archer by Philip K. Dick

Philip K Dick’s Radio Free Albemuth (1985) and VALIS (1981) were strange but moving attempts to make sense of his bizarre religious experiences in 1974 when a hyper-rational alien mind contacted him via a pink laser from space. He then wrote The Divine Invasion (1981) and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982), both loosely connected titles in the VALIS TRILOGY, although the latter was posthumously substituted for the unfinished The Owl in Daylight. Sadly, these were the final novels that PDK wrote before his death in 1982. The Divine Invasion is a complex retelling of the second coming of Christ to an Earth dominated by the fallen angel Belial. If you crave deep philosophical discussions of Gnosticism, anamnesis, and salvation, you’ll be entranced. Otherwise, you may be completely lost.

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982) is a much more controlled, almost mainstream novel narrated by a female protagonist in the first person (perhaps the only example in PKD’s oeuvre?) about the complex relationships between an eccentric but extremely erudite Catholic Bishop named Timothy Archer, his lover Kirsten Lundborg, her schizophrenic son Bill, the Bishop’s son Jeff Archer, and his wife Angel Archer. The book delves into despair and suicide, questions religious faith, and shows the damage caused to loved ones who try to save troubled souls. It’s a big departure for PKD, and it’s sad to see that he didn’t have more opportunities to explore this direction.

The story is told by Angel Archer, the wife of Jeff Archer, who himself is the son of Episcopalian Bishop Timothy Archer. The Bishop is a highly-educated former lawyer, a Renaissance man who challenges many key Catholic doctrines, questions segregation, favors the ordaining of women, enjoys debates on controversial topics, reads Latin and Greek, and is a well-known public figure due to frequent public appearances. In fact, PKD based this character very closely on the real life of James Pike, the Episcopalian Bishop of California from 1958-1966, whose story very closely resembles that of Timothy Archer. In fact, PKD was close friends with him, and he officiated at PKD’s marriage to Nancy Hackett, the step-daughter of Maren Hackett, a woman who Pike was romantically involved with after his second marriage collapsed. This complex interweaving of PKD’s personal life and friends with his fiction is a trademark of his later period, as he increasingly used it to explore his own troubled life and departed from his earlier pulp SF origins.

In the novel, Angel Archer is married to Jeff Archer, the Bishop’s son. Angel Archer initially works at a small law office in Berkeley run by two political activists who represents drug pushers. She pays the bills since Jeff cannot, and eventually becomes manager of a Berkeley record store, something PKD did in real life. When Angel introduces her feminist activist friend Kirsten Lundborg to Tim, he agrees to give a free lecture for Kirsten’s feminist advocacy group. But unknown to Angel, Tim and Kirsten begin an affair as well. When she confronts the Bishop about it, he easily deflects her accusations with his legal skills, pointing out that he himself is not married and Kirsten is a single mother, so they are not adulterers. However, Angel is concerned that this romantic relationship with Kirsten, who becomes the Bishop’s personal secretary, will damage his credibility as a public religious figure.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsMeanwhile, Angel’s husband Jeff Archer develops an attraction to the older Kirsten, and when he discovers she is having an affair with his father, this causes him severe psychological trauma. As time goes on, he begins to suffer from depression and signs of madness. Eventually he commits suicide, causing intense feelings of guilt in Tim and Angel. Subsequently, Kirsten develops cancer and starts taking barbiturates for the pain. She gets increasingly hostile and paranoid, suspecting Angel and Tim having an affair behind her back, and becomes very bitter and angry at life.

Events further devolve as strange ghost-like phenomena occur to Tim and Kirsten, such as objects in the house falling and breaking, Kirsten feeling the pain of pins being pushed under her fingernails, and finally they visit a spiritual medium who reveals in a séance that Tim’s son Jeff is trying to communicate with them and warns Kirsten that her life is in danger. To Angel’s dismay, Tim believes these supernatural explanations and decides to write a book about their experiences. Angel knows this will destroy all Tim’s remaining credibility, but he is determined to see it through. Eventually Kirsten kills herself with an overdose of barbiturates. This not only confirms the psychic’s prediction, but also adds further guilt and pain to the lives of Tim and Angel. They struggle to understand why their loved ones chose to take their own lives and why they could not prevent it.

Tim then learns that an archaeological dig in Israel has unearthed Zadokite Gnostic scrolls that refer to many of Jesus’s famous statements, but over two centuries before the birth of Christ. This throws most of Tim’s beliefs in Christianity into question, particularly the core doctrine of Jesus Christ being the son of God and not just a prophet. He is determined to go there himself to investigate these claims, and goes out into the Judean desert to recreate the experience of Jesus wandering in the wilderness. Alone and disoriented, he falls to his death and is not discovered for days.

Saddled with tragedy after tragedy, Angel Archer seeks spiritual help from a guru named Edgar Lightfoot, whose teaching focus on Zen Buddhism as a form of psychotherapy and healing. There she encounters Kirsten’s schizophrenic son Bill, who has survived all these deaths without feelings of guilt. As they spend time together, Bill one day reveals that the spirit of Timothy Archer now inhabits his mind, and divulges details about Tim that would not be easily known, and also speaks in tongues, quoting from Dante’s Divina Commedia, one of Tim’s favorite literary and religious works. Angel realizes that his mind has completely succumbed to madness, but is still drawn to the possibility of reconnecting with Tim’s spirit. The book ends on this ambiguous note.

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer represents perhaps the most personal of PKD’s works other than A Scanner Darkly, Radio Free Albemuth and VALIS, and is the most mainstream of his later novels. Despite the painful and depressing subject matter, I felt it was a very courageous attempt to search for the reasons behind madness, despair, suicide, religious faith, and whether there is anything that can be done to prevent such tragedies. The sense of inevitability in the characters runs deep, and yet avoids cheap sentimentality. As you might expect, he does not arrive at a life-affirming realization at the end, but he has taken the readers for quite a ride. This book in not really SF or fantasy at all, and would not likely appeal to many genre readers, but for those PKD fans intent on knowing his final thoughts on life, it is an important work and well worth reading.


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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 13 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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2 comments

  1. “Angel Archer” seems like a rather lighthearted pun to throw into such a dark intense story.

    If he’d lived longer, I wonder if his work would have followed this direction, and become more superficially “mainstream” with the strange aspects as undercurrents.

  2. I think Philip K Dick always wanted to be recognized as a mainstream author but felt trapped in the SF genre. Given another decade, I’m pretty sure he would have moved in that direction, and considering how much his reputation grew posthumously, may have gained more recognition. Actually, I’m glad he didn’t make it in the “mainstream”, since that forced him to remain in SF and enriched the genre as a result.

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