Ape and Essence begins in a movie studio, with a script accidentally falling from the back of a trolley full of manuscripts (what authors would call the slushpile) on its way to the incinerator. Two movie executives pick up the screenplay and they are so moved by the story that they seek out the writer, a man named Tallis. Finding him deceased, this part of the story ends (about a quarter into the novel). The rest of Ape and Essence is the mysterious script itself, presented to the reader without modification or editorial comment.
When I say “script”, it’s really a bit of a curious script-novel hybrid – not nearly as sketchy as a screenplay, which is good from a reader’s point of view. We are transported to a world where apes act like people, but in a manner far more surreal than Planet of the Apes. Tribes of apes go to war against each other, each one keeping its very own Albert Einstein on a leash. The symbolism is obvious: the apes allude to the stupidity of mankind, going to war with nuclear weapons and bringing about universal destruction.
Around page fifty I was getting frustrated with the book’s strangeness, but it’s at this point that the story shifts to a post apocalyptic 22nd century and stays firmly grounded therein for the remainder. The world has been devasted by nuclear and chemical warfare. Only one country remains unscathed, for no other reason that it was of little strategic importance during World War III: New Zealand. And the New Zealanders are now making their first sea voyage to rediscover America. Among the crew is our protagonist, the botanist Dr. Poole. Not long after they arrive on shore, Dr. Poole is kidnapped by natives and the rest of his crew are forced to abandon him. He finds himself all alone in a society very unlike the Christian one he came from. The citizens now worship Satan (whom they call Belial), essentially because, given the state of the world, Satan appears to be in charge. Mutation has caused biological changes in mankind. Women typically have three sets of nipples, and mating takes place during a week-long orgy once a year. Anyone who has yearnings to mate all year round is referred to disparagingly as a “hot.” Dr. Poole establishes a place among these “savages” due to his knowledge of botany and the benefits he can bring to the civilisation. Much of the book concerns Dr. Poole as a fish-out-of-water, undergoing changes due to his environment.
Huxley is known for putting a lot of subtext in his novels, although it’s hard to gauge exactly what points he’s trying to make at times. I guess this novel fits in with the mid-20th century preoccupation with the end of the world by nuclear war. It reminded me a lot of John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, only more wacky. Wyndham presents Christianity-gone-mad, whereas Huxley goes for Christianity-gone-Satanic. However, it must be said that Ape and Essence loses none of its charm for its strangeness. I had a great time with this novel. Particularly eyebrow-raising (when you consider the era that it was written) were the sexual elements of the story. Nothing too gratuitious, but the very inclusion of an orgy in which the protagonist participates was quite daring.
I enjoyed this novel particularly as a clash of societies, where the rightness of one’s own views are challenged by submersion into an alien environment, and where something that you might call “humanity” manages to emerge, despite the pressures of both paradigms. I very nearly gave up at page 50, before the real story got rolling; glad I stuck with it.