After reading my rough draft's opening sentence, my percipient pal Dickey cautioned me to remember valor's better part. Aw, here it is anyway, unretouched:
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Flay me as elitist, pertinacious, or what you will, but anyone who hasn't attentively, reflectively read Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (having once grudgingly skimmed it under the duress of some jaded schoolmarm doesn't count) is almost certainly less than a fully sentient world citizen. As you can surmise, Huxley's magnum opus is on my shortlist of essential novels. But, for those who share my penchant for dystopian literature, what is one to read as a follow-up?
Setting aside, for present purposes, diverse works by other luminaries, Huxleys three most important books are Brave New World (1932), Ape and Essence (1948), and Island (1963); ideally, they should be read in that order. Which brings us to the perennially underpraised Ape and Essence.
While BNWs storyline is set about six centuries into the future, Apes is in the year 2108, well after nuclear war has laid waste much of the planet. (Arguably, Huxley shouldve set it still further into futurity, but lets not niggle over nits.) Whereas BNW posits an insidiously satiated society wherein science is the underlying divinity (with Our Ford its apotheosized facade), the Community, Identity, Stability of Ape comes instead at the hallowed hands of Belial-worshipping, castrated clerics who ceremoniously impale mutant babies before weeping mothers, as the subhuman populace looks on, incanting litanies to the Unholy Spirit (not so implausibly far removed from the sanguinary tastes of todays chalice-lifting/screen-idolizing masses, come to think).
Ape is bifurcated into a sort of prose prologue entitled Tallis and The Script which constitutes the bulk of the book. Huxleys artifice of relating the latter in the guise of a screenplay doubtless cooled Apes acceptance by the general public, not to mention many critics. Even so, I find his structural stratagem to be not a hindrance but, indeed, a core virtue. Whereas Tallis is related conventionally in the past tense, The Script is told in the present; the ostensible immediacy of action, together with the intermittent cinematographic signposts, actually lends a certain cool detachment to even the most horrific scenes and ultimately only enhances the books bone-chilling effect. (Whether this makes Ape a more cerebral read than BNW is moot.)
I wont spoil the story for you by revealing further details from the primary narrative, The Script, whence I derived the title for this piece. However, as the chapter-like Tallis prologue is, in reality, an engaging short story in its own right, and since its generally gotten short shrift from reviewers, Ill take some pains to precis it here. [Warning: Much detail from Part ITallis--will be revealed. Those who benefit from summaries, read on. All others proceed directly to the final paragraph of this Epinion.]
From the outset we perceive Huxleys mordantly satirical side is in fine fettle. The initial pithy paragraph artfully commingles disparate images of Ghandis assassination; sightseers with picnic baskets, munching contentedly at Calvary; Ptolemys cosmogony; and the solipsistic worldview of one Bob Briggs, the nameless narrators friend. As the book begins, the two of them converse in the Hollywood movie studio where Bobs employed.
It seems the hapless Bob is chronically frustrated in his two all-consuming quests: inventing mediocre-movie scripts, and consummating his continual relationships with inordinately young women (hes wed to the long-suffering Miriam). Via his narrators stream of consciousness, Huxley purveys sundry tragicomic metaphors representing the romantic (in the poetically platonic sense) Bobs inexorable impotence with his current, would-be mistress.
Suddenly the focus shifts. Outside the studios Story Department, a two-ton truck speedily departs for the incinerator; as it swerves, several rejected scripts plop onto the road. One is hand-lettered: Ape and Essence by William Tallis, Cottonwood Ranch, Murcia, California. Browsing its bizarre content, both the narrator and Bob are so intrigued they subsequently determine to visit Tallis unannounced at his end of the road residence at the fringe of the Mojave Desert.
Their automobiles approach to the desert as they near Tallis place brings to mind (though it predates) a Rod Serling fantasy circa 1959. Arriving, they behold a nondescript white frame house flanked by a windmill and a corrugated iron barn. At the gate a rudely painted sign greets them:
The leechs kiss, the squids embrace,
--The prurient apes defiling touch:
And do you like the human race?
--No, not much.
THIS MEANS YOU, KEEP OUT.
Disregarding the notice (which they correctly assume had been served by Tallis himself), they knock at the door, which immediately opens. A stout elderly woman, Mrs. Coulton, greets them effusively. Is Mr. Tallis here? No, he used to live here but passed on six weeks ago. Heart trouble. But wont you please come in? Halfheartedly, they consent to enter.
Once inside, they belatedly realize theyve crossed into philistine limbo (and what must have seemed the most exquisite conception of Hell to such a cosmopolitan aesthete as Huxley!). As the prattling Mrs. Coulter leads them past a tiny lobby and into an overheated living room, an almost tangible smell of fried food and diapers filled the house.
The old ladys gaunt, curmudgeonly husbandwhom the narrator instantly likens to a leprechaunresolutely resides in a rocker by the window, his gaze riveted to the Sunday comics. Now and again he deigns to proffer a parcel from his amassed wisdom, as when he observes, Mind you, I dont have anything against the Jews, but all the same
maybe Hitler wasnt so dumb after all.
On the sofa, baby at her breast, sits a pallid, glowering wraith of a girl, Katie, a granddaughter. Having spent some considerable portion of the prologue satirizing Bobs recurrently thwarted expectations of orgasmic nirvana, Huxley proceeds to limn the bathos of carnal fulfillments aftermath: Near him a pale, preoccupied-looking young girl
was holding a baby in one arm and, with the other, buttoning her pink blouse. The child belched; a bubble of milk appeared at the corner of its mouth
. Hes got diarrhea again, she said bitterly
. And later: From the half-open door of the bathroom came the squelchy sound of diapers being rinsed in the toilet bowl.
Soon the other teenaged granddaughter, Rosie, emerges appealingly from the next room. Mrs. Coulton, innocently the procuress, explains Rosie wants to get into the movies. Could Mr. Briggs maybe help her? The lascivious Bob smiles disarmingly, and we perceive this ingenue is destined to become his next preoccupation.
Ape and Essence is a must read for anyone whos fully digested Brave New World and feels ready to descend into Huxleys darkest dream of humanitys potential. And once youve read Ape, you should proceed to his dystopian swan song, Island. Published the year of Huxleys death (1963), Island depicts a sort of Shangri-la that
ah, but lets defer that until another time, another review.
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