Billed as a thriller with Scriptural overtones and written by the father-and-son team of Illinoisans Steven and Jay Stamatis, the premise of Scroll Back is an intriguing one: a novel exploring honestly and without irony what most would call a conspiracy theory. Although the book could easily veer into kitsch, the sincerity with which it is written keeps it from being tacky.
The novel, which tackles “the relentless search for God,” delves into questions regarding the role of the individual in determining how history gets recorded and in what manner it is preserved. The historical dialogue in this novel is vast in scope—foci range from the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Bermuda Triangle. The plot moves through space—from the United States to Mexico to Belgium—and, most importantly, through time. Scroll Back’s time-traveling characters move between the present, the late twentieth century, and all the way back to the time of John the Baptist. Throughout these leaps through time and space, the reader witnesses people governed by their own time and theories—religious or otherwise—preserving and discarding facts of their present. The effect this has is revealed when the novel is in what serves as its present day: History is contrived by those with power.
What the reader learns is that history is selective, and one is prompted to continue along this line of investigation: How does the selectivity of history affect the present and people looking back? The protagonists of the novel—Peter Mandes and Alex Mostovolov—provide a lens through which these historical questions can be explored.
Despite the avenue they create for the compelling lines of thought presented in the novel, however, the characters in this novel come across as tools rather than their own agents. They serve primarily as mouthpieces airing what seem to be unfounded opinions from an outside party. The characters are functionally effective, but are kept from being truly interesting due to their lack of development or personality. Motivations are clear in that they are explicitly stated rather than being illustrated through action or dialogue, but this does not keep the characters from coming off as mere shadows rather than real people. The lack of attention to character exploration is further underscored by unrealistic dialogue and unexplained mental leaps contrived to advance the plot.
The plot of Scroll Back is highly intentional and tightly structured. This is both a strength and a weakness: Although the novel is confident in how it wants to proceed, its rigidity keeps it from being believable, puts too many constraints upon characters, and makes the presentation of information awkward. For this reason, the novel often reads as a series of information dumps strung together with hard-to-follow lines of logic. Luckily, although the plot is hard to follow, it is redeemed slightly in that its focus and thematic scope are interesting.
Stylistically, outside of instances of compelling word choice, the writing itself is vague and non-descriptive. Its clumsiness and ambiguity, alongside issues of characterization, prove to cloud what was a premise with great potential. As a result, Scroll Back has a thought-provoking foundation, but it struggles to clearly or realistically articulate what it has set out prove.
January 2015, GK Publishing
$17.95, paperback, 314 pages
—Reviewed by Cassandra Verhaegen