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May/June 2020
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Hackenfeller's Ape, by Brigid Brophy (1953)

At the enviable, prodigal age of twenty-four, Brigid Brophy (1929-1995) published both a story collection and her first novel, Hackenfeller's Ape, launching an illustrious career that lasted right up to her untimely death. Her fledgling tale is a compact, fully formed work of satire associational to our genre in the same way as Wibberley's The Mouse That Roared: a sociopolitical speculation skirting fantasy's tamer precincts.

Lonely, acerbic, dedicated Professor Clement Darrelhyde (beset by an overbearing sister and busybody old ladies at his lodging house) conducts daily research at the London Zoo, by observing Percy and Edwina, caged Hackenfeller's apes, as he awaits their heretofore unchronicled mating. But utilitarian rocket boffin Kendrick wants Percy as an astro-ape, to be launched on a one-way trip into orbit. Darrelhyde conceives of a jailbreak, enlists a chance-met thieving gamin named Gloria for her skills with a jimmy-bar, and off they go, on a prototype PETA mission. But tragedy intervenes with escapee Percy's death—allowing Kendrick to wear Percy's flayed skin as a disguise and thus fulfill his own gloriously fatal cosmonaut ambitions.

Brophy dips into Percy's stream of consciousness for passages of perfect otherness—"He exulted in the oiled articulation of his bones...[passing] like a substantial angel across the Zoo"—and the book's coda, "Soliloquy of an Embryo," follows suit, inhabiting the mentality of Percy and Edwina's baby as it is born.

A poignant farce of idealism versus misanthropism, Brophy's debut prefigures the rebellious anti-establishment novels of the sixties, such as Barth's Giles Goat-Boy and Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang.

Paul Di Filippo

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