Next door to my place of work is the Barnes & Noble that faces south on Union Square, and toward the rear of the fourth floor of this—by New York City standards—monstrous bookstore is the table of books “favorited” by the bookstore staff, a selection far more interesting than the pay-to-play tables that crowd the front entrance. It was from this table that I plucked Stephen Brijs’ The Angel Maker. The selling point? According to the blurb, the Brijs’ variation on themes featured in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, of an outside world looking in and failing to understand the true meaning (and importance) of events that unfolded behind closed doors. The Angel Maker reflects mightily on this argument between appearance and reality through the story of Dr. Victor Hoppe, a victim of biology and circumstance.
Dare one discuss any aspect of this book without ruining its plot? This is no small challenge for a novel that literally throws the mystery of its story in the reader’s face on the first page when the good doctor arrives in his boyhood hometown after a long exile with three tiny and terribly ugly children in tow. Hoppe is barely communicative on the why and wherefore of his absence, his return, and origin of the little deformities. As the story switches back and forth among narrators, from local townsfolk to the children’s nurse, from Hoppe’s colleague to the good doctor himself, the wall between what is hidden within and suggested without is breached for the reader and, presumably with truth in hand, we are set free.
In Jekyll and Hyde, that truth is ugly and Darwinian. Beneath every top-coated and becaned Edwardian lives a murderous, club-wielding simian. What Utterson and the reader will reckon with by the novel’s end is a science recast as evil-smelling green, smoky potions little different from the mood-altering opiates of sunny England's shady dens, threatening civilization as they knew it. It is the science of the Gatling and Maxim gun, of exploded bodies from long-range munitions. A pretty picture it was not in Stevenson’s time and, as we look back, all seeming just a run-up to the atrocities of World War I.
The Angel Maker suggests an equally ugly future, albeit with a little less science fiction sturm und drang. At first, readers are drawn to think Brijs is berating us with a novel of biotechnology run amok when placed in the hands of the misdiagnosed and mistreated. But scientific prey is not what is being stalked, although there are perfunctory jabs at scientific careerism. No, the true culprit of The Angel Maker is religious ignorance, and Hoppe’s ancestral home of Wolfheim is rife with it, from the parish priest and local abbess to Hoppe’s housekeeper and the triplets’ mother. The ignorance of basic biology, largely replaced by Christian palliatives, reveals the dependence of Wolfheim’s natives on an education that has no basis in the scientific understandings of the late 20th-century, an education that precipitates all of the disasters that ensue, from Hoppe’s Frankensteinian experiments to the untimely deaths and literal bodily misuses of those who come within his reach.
What most disturbs the American reader of Brijs’ condemnation of religious parochialism is how shockingly universal that ignorance may well be. As an addict of left-leaning blogs, I’m too familiar with the remarkable stupidities of America’s true believers (favorite bumper sticker alert: “Dear Jesus, please save me…from your followers”). What I know less well are the dangers associated with Europe’s own breed of religious tunnel visionaries. Is Brijs’ Wolfhem of the 1980s a literary convenience? Has the appalling lack of knowledge of reproductive biology been done away with in the more rustic climes of the European Union? Or does such ignorance prevail today, perhaps gaining in ferocity as in the U.S., paving the way for European versions of Texas school boards and Creation Museums?
At a minimum, Brijs answers Stevenson when he suggests our better angels are not the moral credos of religion done right. While there is at first reason to think The Angel Maker a profoundly religious book because of the energy with which it takes up its Christian themes, it is, if anything, a profoundly anti-religious work—and not specifically anti-Christian at that—because it holds nothing but disdain for the education in misperception any religious weltanschaung demands.