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This may be tiresome prattle to you, but it is something else to me: it is my heart's despair.

You may have heard stories about bouts of insanity during the last few years of Philip K. Dick's life.  Reading this novel, you will realize how untrue the stories were.

A simple plot synopsis would not do justice to Philip K. Dick's complicated, sometimes rambling, final novel.   A rating based upon the novel's ability to hold my attention or even suspension of disbelief would also mislead.

The publishers have already misled you by making the novel part of Dick's "VALIS" cycle.  In The Transmigration of Timothy Archer there is nothing of VALIS or even of science fiction.  No Ferris F. Fremont, no Aramchek, no aliens broadcasting mesages of hope, no schizophrenic guys named Phil. OK, there's a schizophrenic guy named Bill.

The novel consists entirely of the interactions between five characters:

  • Angel Archer, the narrator
  • Jeff Archer, her husband
  • Timothy Archer, Episcopal Bishop of California, Jeff's father
  • Kirsten Lundborg, Bishop Archer's secretary and mistress
  • Bill Lundborg, Kirsten's schizophrenic son.

The only other characters with speaking parts are Dr. Rachel Garrett, a medium, and Edgar Barefoot, a paid spiritual advisor of the type they show on PBS during pledge breaks. The outside world rarely impinges itself on this little circle, even if Bishop Tim frequently impinges himself upon the world.  The irredeemably self-centered Archer is at the center of everyone else's universe, whether they like it or not.

The plot, loosely based upon the life of Dick's friend, San Francisco bishop James Pike, is rather minimal, a sort of armature fleshed out by moral dilemmas, philosophy, religion, heresy, spiritualism, venality, collusion, delusion, love, jealousy, hatred, self-destruction, and yes, tiresome prattle.   Frequent quotes from literary works are used to advance the story: This is the only novel I know with a bibliography, and Dick expects you to have already read everything in it.

Everything is told from Angel's viewpoint.  Angel attends one of Edgar Barefoot's lectures after everything is happened, on October 9, 1980, the night John Lennon was shot.   This event, plus Angel's realization that Barefoot has no idea what he is talking about, triggers memories of the past 15 years, of the self-destruction of her husband Jeff, then Kirsten, and finally Bishop Archer (This is no spoiler: Angel reveals this up front; and you need to read the rest of the book to find out how and why it happens).

More accurately, Angel tells us how she let her father-in-law dominate everyone's life, and the consequences resulting from it.  Angel's immersion in the warped reality of Berkeley doesn't help matters. We watch as Timothy Archer's faith in Jesus Christ is tranformed into something else entirely, and how the people around him are dragged along.  The only bit of stability anchoring the whole structure is a schizophrenic boy, who has been in and out of mental institutions his whole life.

Angel: Close, but no phattie, cheese.
Gorgonzola: . o O ( Damn! This book is difficult to pin down. )
The Bish: Do you really think so?
Phil Dick: It is if he keeps missing all the points.
Bill: You know how hard it is to get points for a '55 Buick?
The Bish: Neitzsche, or Dale Carnegie, or somebody, said that a point isn't always necessary, and sometimes counterproductive. Perhaps it was Hume.
Kirsten: The point's on his head.
*Kirsten pops a Red*
Angel: You're all a little too tough on him, even if he didn't understand my relationship with you, Tim.
All right, all right. Angel's story is not so much a condemnation of Timothy Archer as an apologia of his actions.  Fate and and denial of fate, acceptance and resistance to fate, wind themselves around everything.  When told his fate, Archer resists, and Angel approves. No matter; the outcome is still the same.

If you look at the date of the novel's publication (1982) and the date of Dick's death (1982), you will realize that Dick was staring death in the face as he wrote it.  Much of the story involves death, and many of the ideas concerning it are probably Dick's own.

As I have hinted at earlier, there are places where your suspension of disbelief will be interrupted, but there are far more places where you will have to stop for a few minutes to absorb what you have just read. No one else but Philip K. Dick could have written it. A seemingly unending supply of mental nourishment awaits you, even if you have to steer around the occasional pile of rubbish.  Have a sandwich.  Now, go get this book and read it.

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