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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Dick's Final Revelation

Over the course of the last month I've read 13 novels by Philip K. Dick. It's been a revelation, and I choose that word carefully; Dick's later work is chiefly concerned with divine revelation, and nowhere does that theme resonate more poignantly than in his last novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer.

Written from the perspective of the title character's daughter-in-law, Angel Archer, and set against the backdrop of the assassination of John Lennon, Dick explores the nature of religion (and, ultimately, the universe) via the later life of one Timothy Archer, Bishop of California, a man struggling with the implications of an archaeological find that threatens his faith. Angel inadvertently contributes to Archer's eventual fall from grace by introducing him to her friend Kirsten; she and the bishop have an affair, and to make matters worse her own husband, Timothy's son, falls in love with Kirsten and eventually commits suicide, torn between his infatuation and his father.

In Angel, Dick has created a rich, sympathetic protagonist; she's smart, compassionate, quick witted and skeptical, and she bears the burden of her losses with great strength. Angel presents her self as non-Christian (or non-whatever, given the context of the religious discussion), and her doubt is essential to understanding Timothy's path. The bishop has doubts of his own, but true to his convictions (and faults), he searches for revelation and dies, appropriately, in the desert that gave birth to the Abrahamic religions.

As in Dick's other best works, the author displays a keen sense of empathy and compassion for all of his characters; there are no villains here, just flawed individuals, each following his or her own truth to its logical conclusion.

While I myself am an atheist, I'm very glad to have read this moving and insightful novel about faith and the search for meaning. It seems clear to me that Dick was a very deep thinker with serious questions about the nature of reality, and in his later works (for example, VALIS and The Divine Invasion before Archer), he's clearly trying to come to grips with his own beliefs. I wonder what he wound up believing in the end, and I hope he found the answers he was clearly looking for. 

1 comment:

Jeff Shyluk said...

You and I will have to read Dick's Exegesis to find out exactly what he was thinking. The VALIS trilogy distills all of that, though. The people and events are just on the fictional side of being real, so that he can spin a narrative and presumably sell novels. Critics suggest that PKD failed to ground himself, but the fact remains that he knew that only by writing novels could he support himself. So everything he wrote, he kept an eye towards novelization. He constantly adapted his writing to have it fit into novel form.

I think that this kind of self-direction ultimately split his mind in two. The drugs accelerated the process, and possibly a stroke as well. He gives free reign to his inner critic, and in the last decade of his life he with great precision went through all of his previous works and re-analyzed them within two contexts: their marketability as novels and their application towards his VALIS revelation in 1973.

Critics of the Exegesis also claim that PKD's approach is undisciplined. Your write 900 pages about yourself and comment on the background of a dozen novels you've written over twenty years and see what kind of discipline you achieve. I can't imagine doing that. I've read small parts of the Exegesis before it was published, but I'm steeling myself to read the whole thing. Don't know when, though. Hopefully sooner rather than later.