Assembling California

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In the late 1970’s, John McPhee began a series of trips across the United States, roughly at the fortieth parallel. In the four books that resulted, he has provided a geological cross-section of North America and a primer of plate tectonics. He has also done something more difficult to describe. Shifting from geological eras to “history” to the present, he has created an uncanny sense of the relativity of time.

“Then, a piece at a time — according to present theory— parts began to assemble. An island here, a piece of continent there — a Japan at a time, a New Zealand, a Madagascar — came crunching in upon the continent and have thus far adhered.” That’s McPhee describing the literal “assembling” of California: geological time. A sudden shift in perspective and it’s 1848, with McPhee retelling the story of John Sutter and the Gold Rush with a freshness that makes it new: history. In the present, McPhee is guided by geologist Eldridge Moores, who perceives eons of change in a landscape the way a city-dweller might recognize signs of change in a neighborhood. Finally, in recounting the Loma Prieta quake that devastated the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989, McPhee shows geological time and present time intersecting for a few terrifying seconds—with enormous consequences.

In a recent PUBLISHERS WEEKLY interview, Alec Wilkinson commented on the lameness of the “nonfiction” label for the work of writers such as McPhee and Joseph Mitchell (and Wilkinson himself). Whatever it is called, the writing in ASSEMBLING CALIFORNIA and the preceding volumes in ANNALS OF THE FORMER WORLD is as good and as likely to last as any writing of our time.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXIX, December 1, 1992, p.633.

The Christian Science Monitor. March 3, 1993, p.13.

Kirkus Reviews. LX, December 1, 1992, p.1485.

Library Journal. CXVIII, January, 1993, p.162.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 13, 1993, p.1.

New Scientist. CXXXIX, July 24, 1993, p. 37.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, March 7, 1993, p.9.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, January 4, 1993, p.67.

Time. CXLI, April 5, 1993, p.62.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, March 7, 1993, p.5.