Books Acquired:
The Rachel Papers, Martin Amis
The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, Philip K. Dick
The Wonder Effect, C.M. Kornbluth & Frederik Pohl

Progress Made:
Shogun, James Clavell
The Black Count, Tom Reiss
White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day, Richie Unterberger

Books Finished:
The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, Philip K. Dick
Star Trek: Log Two, Alan Dean Foster

Browsing in Eureka Books one day I came across a first-edition paperback of Philip K. Dick’s The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, his last book, vintage 1983. It was going for a mere $5 so I snapped it up despite already having a later edition of the book at home. Or so I thought — upon perusing the PKD shelf I found no such thing, though I’m pretty sure I owned it at some point.

Suddenly it became urgent that I read the book, so I did. It’s quit linear and coherent by Dick standards, told entirely from a single point of view — that of Angel Archer, daughter-in-law of the title character. Timothy Archer, an Episcopal bishop, is a brilliant, learned, and beloved man who is also completely out of touch with reality.

Only after writing the last sentence did I realize that that expression rests on the presupposition that there is a reality, one we can all agree on. And of course questioning reality was Phil’s whole thing, no less so in Transmigration, where Archer — a passionate if rather exasperating seeker after truth — keeps finding the ground shifting beneath him.

As the novel begins, Archer has just begun to suspect — based on newly uncovered archaeological evidence — that Jesus was a fraud. This seed of doubt seems to undermine his entire world, gradually consuming his son, his lover, and finally himself. Only Angel, a beacon of relative sanity among the swirling madness, is left to bear witness.

Timothy Archer is a apparently based on a real person: James Pike, Episcopal bishop of San Francisco from 1958 to 1966, with whom PKD struck up an unlikely friendship. As I read about him, I see that it is a pretty thinly veiled portrait — little was changed except the name — and also that Pike was the subject of a famous essay by Joan Didion. I guess I’ll have to read that now. It never ends.

At least I hope not.

I’ve made good progress in Shogun, but still have a long way to go. Fortunately summer just arrived, with all the prime reading time that entails.

Although — the weird thing about summer is that as soon as it begins it feels like it’s ending; the days start getting shorter and our redwoods start shedding their needles. In some ways those first few weeks of June are the real summer.

But I think there will be time for the slim book of sci-fi stories I bought at the same time as Transmigration; one or more issues of Harpers; the Vonnegut biography I put on pause a while back; and maybe The Rachel Papers, which I had to re-buy after losing it. Sadly, though I thought I had ordered another copy with the same cover:

What I ended up with was this:

Which makes me embarrassed to be seen reading it in public, even though it is, like, Serious Literature, man!

After starting over from scratch I ripped through a big piece of it in an afternoon; it is highly readable, if at times cringeworthy and/or Incomprehensibly British. I also quibble with this passage:

The girls being hippies, I selected the most violent and tuneless of all my American LPs, Heroin by the Velvet Underground. The immediate results? Anastasia swayed in her chair and tapped a sandalled foot; Sue went glazed, craning her neck in figure-eight patterns. There you go.

I suppose we must entertain the possibility that the errors of fact and judgment here are those of the narrator, not the author; but I suspect this is yet another case of the Great Writer failing to grok the rock’n’roll.

And, finally, I found time for some nonfiction: Tom Reiss’s book about Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, father of the author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. The elder Dumas was a fascinating m-f: his father was a rogue French nobleman hiding out in Haiti (then called Saint-Domingue) whose affair with an enslaved woman on his brother’s sugar plantation produced a son. At one point he sold the son to pay for passage back to France.

Later, though, Thomas-Alexandre’s father bought his freedom and brought him to France to be raised as nobility. He became a great general, legendary swordsman, and all-around larger than life figure who served as inspiration for his son’s novels.

I’m still near the beginning of The Black Count, so I’ll report back later. In the meantime here’s a quick excerpt and a relevant video, and I’ll bid you adieu.

I remember hearing my father [this is the novelist Dumas writing about Thomas-Alexandre] recount that one day, returning home from town when he was ten years old, he saw to his great surprise a sort of tree trunk lying by the sea. He hadn’t noticed it in passing the same place two hours before; so he amused himself by gathering pebbles and throwing them at the log; but all of a sudden, as the pebbles made contact, the log woke up. It was nothing less than a caiman sleeping in the sun.

Caimans, it seems, wake up in a foul mood; the one in question glimpsed my father and took it upon himself to run after him.

My father, a true child of the colonies, a son of the beaches and savannas, ran well; but it would seem that the caiman ran or rather jumped even better than he did, and this adventure might well have left me in limbo forever if a negro, who was eating sweet potatoes astride a wall, had not seen what was happening and shouted to my father, already out of breath:

“Serpentine, little sir! Serpentine!”