Looking for Marco Polo by Alan Armstrong was a fascinating read, but not for the reasons the author was hoping, I’m sure. Mostly, I was trying to figure out exactly why it just wasn’t working for me.
First reason: faulty advertising. Or maybe, an unclear metaphor. I picked this up at the library, and from reading the description on the inside of the front jacket (does that description have an official name?) here’s what I gathered: Mark’s father “has disappeared in the Gobi Desert while tracing the path of Marco Polo.” Mark and his mother go to Venice to talk to the agency that sent his father to the desert, trying to find him. Mark meets Dr. Hornaday, who starts telling him the story of Marco Polo and “before he knows it, Mark–like his father–is on the trail with Marco Polo as he travels the Road of Silk.”
So what am I expecting: that Mark’s father is on some kind of special expedition specifically focused on Marco Polo–it says that, right? Probably the mystery of his disappearance has something to do with that. Mark, in turn, will find himself fascinated by whatever his father’s Marco Polo-related mission was, and end up traveling through the desert, either in the modern day or, even better, somehow going back in time. If I’m crazy to draw those conclusions, someone tell me.
What is the book actually about? First, Mark’s father is in the Gobi Desert, but he’s studying the people. It’s the same place Marco Polo was in, and Mark’s father does mention that when he gives him a copy of Polo’s book, but otherwise, his expedition has no connection to Polo. Second, and much more importantly, Mark doesn’t go anywhere beyond Venice. “On the trail” and “looking for Marco Polo,” are metaphors.
What this really is, is Mark and Dr. Hornaday sitting in a cafe and occasionally walking around Venice, while the doctor talks about Marco Polo’s trip. It’s not that the stories aren’t interesting–but it’s not what I was expecting. Problem one: failed expectations.
Once I was about 150 pages in and realized this was all there was, and I should stop waiting for Mark to go anywhere, I tried to readjust to the new trajectory of the book. And to figure out, beyond the failed expectations, why it wasn’t working. I like the story of Marco Polo. I chose to do a report on him in high school. I like Venice. The stories Dr. Hornaday is telling are good ones.
But. Mark and Dr. Hornaday are ultimately a frame story for Marco Polo. The trouble is, they’re a frame story that won’t go away: problem two. Once in a while Dr. Hornaday talks for so long and in such detail that you almost forget you’re still sitting in a cafe. Most of the time, that doesn’t happen. I would much rather be in Marco Polo’s story, with the level of immersion and detail that would allow, rather than sitting at a surface level where it’s limited by what Dr. Hornaday can say out loud, and where every so often Mark asks a question and pulls me out of Kublai Khan’s court entirely.
I think I would have liked this book better if Armstrong had given Mark a couple of chapters to set up his world, and then Dr. Hornaday had said, “Let me tell you about Marco Polo…” and launched on a 200 page narration of Marco Polo’s life without another reference to Mark or the doctor. That’s how a frame story should work. That’s how The Time Machine does it, or how Burroughs wrote a lot of his books. This telling of the two stories at once never let me really get into either one.
It was actually fascinating to observe from a literary standpoint. It made me think a lot about frame stories and how they function–or not. And if you want to know about Marco Polo, this does that. There’s even a bibliography at the end. But if you look at the description, be warned–all is not as it seems, and I don’t mean what’s going on in the Gobi Desert.