Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer

I haven't read a lot of Philip K Dick's work, although I know of it via the various movies that have been made, and from reading about him at different times. I think I read the book that Blade Runner was based on (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and remember it being rather different to the movie, and leaving the reader somewhat up in the air.

However, via a somewhat circuitous route (Cino list quote, Amazon review, library) I picked up The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. Ostensibly the third in a trilogy, I believe it's actually a stand-alone story that has little to do with the other two titles, except in terms of some themes.

It's loosely based on the later life of Bishop James Pike whom I read about a number of years ago in someone else's book - don't ask me what. Bishop Pike was castigated in the book, as I recall, as being someone who basically lost his faith, and died in a peculiar way.

The similarities between the Bishop in the book and the real life one are many: Pike's son committed suicide, so does Bishop Archer's. Pike experienced poltergeist happenings - Archer does too, but they're treated as fake by the narrator of the book (his daughter-in-law). Pike took to trying to contact his son by using mediums - so does Archer, on one occasion. Pike embarrassed the church less for his outspoken views than for his irreligious behaviour before his death. Ditto. Pike published a book on his search via mediums for his son; do does Archer.

Pike drove into the Israeli desert with his wife, apparently fell down a cliff and died after they became separated (the car had broken down). Archer's wife is dead before the book begins; his mistress has committed suicide by the time Archer goes into the Israeli desert, and he dies alone.

It must have been quite outrageous for Dick to base his story so strongly on a real-life person, but he apparently got away with it.

The narrator, Angel Archer, tells us from the beginning of the book that her husband, father-in-law and the latter's mistress will all be dead before the end of it, so I'm not giving anything away here to a potential reader. And we are warned close to the event in each case that it's about to happen.

The story is primarily Angel's, and in a sense is her faith journey - though this is a faith journey with many unusual byways, and a not strong conclusion. The other major character is the son of the mistress, a youngish man who is in and out of psychiatric hospitals because of his frequently deteriorating mental state. However, he also happens to be a character who acts as a kind of wise fool. And there is also Edgar Barefoot who seems to be a bit of a conman in the spiritual area, but who also manages to come up with some wisdom before the end. As I noted in my previous post, God isn't obliged to use only his 'chosen' ones to speak wisdom.

What there is of plot I've pretty much covered above. John Allegro and his magic mushroom comes into it as well, but besides that most of the book consists of intriguing discussions about religion, death, life, philosophy and everything in between. Dick comes across as a man with a mind as eclectic as Archer's (his mind focuses, but on something different almost every minute), and you have to keep your wits about you to keep up with the arguments. Still, even if you don't, you'll find this an interesting read; it has a surprising page-turning feel to it, considering its content.
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