Simon Winchester’s latest book, Pacific, is based on a fairly simple westward-focused premise: If the Mediterranean was the birthplace of classical civilization, and the Atlantic linked Europe to the New World, then the inevitable next epoch is already unfolding on both sides of the Pacific Rim.
But nothing is simple when a writer and intellect of Winchester’s caliber is involved. Later-period Winchester titles tend to start with a Big Idea and an equally ambitious structural scaffolding upon which he frames the narrative. In his first oceanic “biography,” The Atlantic, Winchester built the tale around the Seven Ages of Man from Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
To described the rise of America in The Men Who United the States, he focused on 200 individuals whose tales of discovery, migration and innovation were organized into the five classical elements — wood, earth, water, fire and metal.
Winchester employs another smart — if slightly forced — device to create the exoskeleton for his latest oceanic quasi-biography. After much deliberation, Winchester defines the start of the forward-looking story on Jan. 1, 1950 — Year Zero in the argot of scientists, the moment organic matter could no longer be reliably carbon-dated because radioactivity caused by nuclear testing throughout the Pacific had despoiled the atmosphere.
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“This made it all the more appropriate, it seemed to me, to choose that moment — the hinge, the dividing line, between purity and impurity — as the start line for this account,’’ Winchester writes. “The story of the ocean of tomorrow, in other words, begins at the start of the present.’’
It also provides an apt launching point for a poignant first chapter on American nuclear weapon testing that wreaked immense environmental havoc and social upheaval on the Bikini Atoll. Misled by U.S. military leaders into believing they would be returning home after a short, temporary displacement, the indigenous Marshall Islanders were permanently relocated.
This overriding sense of serious environmental peril, from forces man-made, as well as tectonic and meteorological, is a recurring theme throughout Pacific. Pay close attention to that sprawling subtitle. It actually undersells the breadth and depth of the geopolitical and cultural history, natural science and geography that Winchester crams into the book.
The stories cross-cut back and forth in time and locale, from the Bering Straits and Silicon Valley to Tierra Del Fuego, from the Yangtze River to the Panama Canal. Grace notes arrive in unexpected places, such as the chapter on surfing. The roots of this modern multibillion-dollar sports business run deep in the Polynesian Pacific’s cultural past. Contrast that with the final chapter, where Winchester takes a deep analytical dive into the increasingly complicated chess board of U.S.-China relations.
These component parts are fascinating, provocative and, at times, mildly terrifying (Especially the sheer brutal lunacy of the North Korean regime.) But they don’t always cohere into a natural, recognizable whole. As Winchester acknowledges in the prologue, the resultant tale is “perhaps more pointillist than precise.’’
Winchester, who became a naturalized American citizen in 2011, still writes with the erudition and reserve of a confident Oxford-trained geologist. He spent large portions of his earlier journalism career as an Asia-based correspondent. The hallmarks of Winchester’s best work — a fertile, curious mind, impeccable research and command of complex material — is on full display here.
But readers unfamiliar with Winchester’s extensive body of work, or those who prefer simpler, straighter-line narratives, might be better served to start with one of his earlier bestsellers, such as Krakatoa or The Professor and the Madman. For them, the peripatetic Pacific may be too vast to conquer.
Larry Lebowitz is a Miami writer.