Some Thoughts on The Transmigration of Timothy Archer
A criticism often levelled at Dick is that his female characters are badly written, and it’s hard to deny it. Particularly in his earlier work, the female characters, when they exist at all, are an amalgamation of every dreadful trope regarding women in popular fiction. They are poorly developed, flimsy. They are nagging wives, whores, and addicts. The lecturer who took the SF module I did at uni (we read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which is a fairly tame offender) pointed to his succession of failed marriages. Those feelings of bitterness are almost certainly a contributing factor. Personally I’d argue that, in many ways, Philip K. Dick was a bad writer. I mean, God I love him, and I plan to read everything he ever set down on paper; no one has ever fed my head the way Dick does. But he wrote a lot, and did a lot of drugs. That even his bad novels are still pretty good is a testament to his ability. But when he was less experienced, under more pressure, and probably having to produce more work than he had good ideas for, certain elements of his work suffered, characterisation being chief among them. The women in his work get it worse because of the misogyny in the groundwater and the aforementioned personal factors. He got away with it because the core ideas in his fiction are always so damn interesting. You could just go read philosophy, but it wouldn’t be nearly as fun. Who goes to Dick for characters, anyway?
But if you did want to come to Dick for the characters, you could do a lot worse than The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. Being the final novel he completed, you might expect it to exhibit his mature style, but it does more than this, becoming the kind of logical end point of both strands of his work. Dick’s theological and philosophical concerns are present, as always, and all the characters freely debate the nature of belief and the existence of God. But, they are much more than just mouthpieces for Dick’s ideas, something his earlier work can suffer from. Transmigration is the end point of Dick’s work on character and his maturing as a writer, from The Man in the High Castle (an earlier work, but he spent much longer on it than his other novels of the period, and you can really tell), to Do Androids Dream?, to A Scanner Darkly. Dick’s concerns were always very human, there just weren’t always humans to be concerned about, but you can see that in this thread of novels that Dick did work on developing his characters, on making them more than mouthpieces. You’ll also note that the aforementioned novels contain some of Dick’s most complex female characters. I’m not sure if they pass the Bechdel test, but it’s something, compared to say, Eye in the Sky.
Transmigration is a novel soaked in pathos. What could be more emotionally charged than the death of John Lennon, a musician you and your late husband were very fond of? Every station is playing Beatles songs on a loop, and it takes you right back to the ‘60s, right back to when you were in love with him. Such is the setup for this novel, and boy does it grab you, because not only are we immediately given an emotional concern, but it is all from the perspective of Angela Archer. A Dickian heroine. If nothing else this will immediately interest readers of his works because (to my knowledge) this is the only time he ever used one.
It’s that emotional resonance in going back to the ‘60s that still keeps this identifiable as a late Dick novel, and it gives the whole work a feeling of lament. Death is inescapable, this inevitability even figured in to the structure, in which we first meet a woman who has experienced much loss, and then slowly come to know just what it is that she lost. She is also flawed and unreliable, and despite lacking the schizophrenic quality, has a lot in common with the narrator of A Scanner Darkly (and in fact the book does as a whole). It is not played out as a main theme, but pretty much everyone is fucked up on drugs, which in some way contributes to the whole mess. Not only is the ‘60s over, but we come to realise it wasn’t that great, really. Dick doesn’t go so far as to include an explicit memorial, but one knows his dead friends are lingering.
That feeling of lament, and the exploration of nostalgia in its most literal (saddest) sense, reminded me a lot of Pynchon, particularly Vineland, while I was reading. I know Vineland is one of Pychon’s least liked novels, but I quite enjoyed it, and am thinking about it again having finished Transmigration. I think they make quite good companion pieces, so bear that in mind if you’re planning to read one or the other.
I haven’t yet read any of Dick’s more “straight” literary novels, but if this is anything to go by, they are certainly worth a look. If SF functions by estrangement, then Dick does a very good job of making his representations of real life seem very strange indeed, leveraging, in this mature work, his considerable speculative talents to make a familial tale of tragedy and loss seem very fucking far out, indeed.