Filed under: Book Reviews, Commercial Fiction, Mystery & Thriller | Tags: alex garland, book review, books, lit, literature, the beach
On the level of a thriller-crime-utopiagonewrong novel, Alex Garland’s The Beach is an unqualified success. Opening with the arrival of its main character, Richard, on Khao San Road (“backpacker land”), Garland’s novel has an unstoppable energy, the sort that overwhelms your need for sleep, food, or bathroom breaks. Given a map to an island far off the tourist track by “Daffy Duck,” a man who commits suicide the morning after Richard’s arrival in the hostel they both stay at, Richard heads out for the island with a couple also staying on Khao San Road. When they find the island it turns out to be covered by a marijuana plantation and its guards; but there is also a lagoon holding a utopia of former travelers drawn by a desire to stop seeing place after place felled by tourism.
Richard, Françoise and Ètienne are unusual in that they’ve been led to this lagoon by a map. New residents are typically brought in by older residents who have found them suitable – if maps get out, the lagoon will stop being what it is and become just one more beach mentioned in a Lonely Planet travel guide. Run by Sal, the camp works because everyone has their role as fisherman, gardener, cook or carpenter (apart from one, Jed, who works alone and whose job is unknown for most of the novel), and because there are no maps floating around the tourist towns. Richard has given a map out, though; fearing that the island wouldn’t exist, wanting his friends to be a part of his experience if it did exist, he left a hand-drawn map with some of his acquaintances before setting out for the beach that has taken on an air of the otherworldly in backpacker lore.
This secluded beach, of course, can’t remain secluded; Garland suggests that it is, at end, just like so many other hidden retreats that in time are turned into places for tourists to hit, not a tourist trap so much as a place that has lost its purity. It’s unnerving, fascinating, to watch what happens to the people living communally on the beach as they are forced to face how they relate to the rest of the world and how they remain separate. Things are forced into motion when Jed and Richard, on a “Rice Run,” overhear travelers talking about the beach and making plans to find it. Richard is responsible for this break in secrecy, having been the one to draw the map the travelers have, and though Jed doesn’t reveal Richard’s role in this he does request that Richard be reassigned to work with him, watching for new arrivals to the beach.
The Beach works best when Garland focuses on the day-to-day of Richard’s life. There are enough odd elements here – the marijuana plantation and its guards, the cave tunnels he must swim through to exit the lagoon, the air pockets he finds himself trapped in on his first journey out from under the rock, jumping through a waterfall to land on the level of the beach – that Garland doesn’t need too much “action” to keep the story interesting. Its progression, from the beach as a protected place to what seems the inevitable collapse of the commune if word gets out, is natural, making its way without hurry. The fear the inhabitants of the beach feel when they think about others learning of their island is palpable and fascinating. Richard hallucinates that the dead “Daffy Duck” is with him at times, and that his suicide can be linked back to his claustrophobic worldview, in which nothing can remain pure forever:
‘If I had a part in destroying the beach, I did it unwittingly. You did it on purpose.’
‘Who says I destroyed this place? Not me, pal. Not from where I’m standing.’ He glanced at his crossed legs. ‘Sitting.’
‘Who was it then?’
Mister Duck shrugged. ‘No one. Stop looking for some big crime, Rich. You have to see, with these places, with all these places, you can’t protect them. We thought you could, but we were wrong. I realized it when Jed arrived. The word was out, somehow out, and after that it was just a matter of time…Not that I acted on it at first. I waited, hoping he was a one-off, I guess. But then the Swedes arrived and I knew for sure. Cancer back, no cure, malignant as fuck…’ He stood up, dusted the earth off his legs, and flicked his bark zero into the waterfall pool. ‘Terminal.’ (379)
Garland at time stretches himself too far in attempting to draw some parallel between Richard’s hallucinogenic experiences on the beach and in protecting the beach, and the Vietnam War. Garland has character occasionally toss off Vietnam-era vocabulary and acronyms, and it never feels quite right; he leaves the reader with some sketch of a “bigger” novel commenting on the ways these films shape and alter worldviews, but never weaves this into the story enough that it can take hold.
Read as a slow-building thriller, The Beach is a nearly perfect book, so much so that Garland’s half-hearted efforts to infuse it with the feel of Vietnam-era films are forgivable.