Title: The Beach
Author: Alex Garland
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
The Khao San Road, Bangkok – first stop on the backpacker trail. On Richard’s first night there a fellow traveller slits his wrists, leaving Richard a map to “the Beach”.
The Beach is a legend among young travellers in Asia: white as sands circling a lagoon hidden from the sea, coral gardens and freshwater falls surrounded by jungle. In this earthly paradise, it is rumoured, a select community lives in blissful innocence. For Richard, haunted by the glamour of Vietnam war movies, a trek into unknown Thai territory is irresistible. He was looking for adventure. Now he’s found it.
The Beach sat on my bookshelf for years before I read it. Once I had begun, however, I couldn’t put it down and have been a fan of Garland’s writing ever since. The build up is meticulous but never unnecessary and the pace is unrelenting. One thing that Garland does so well is to structure his writing in such short, bitesize chapters or vignettes that make the whole thing all the more compulsive.
The Beach is fun, seductive and adventurous. I’ve always thought of it as something that would result from Kerouac and Golding going on a gap year. The comparisons with William Golding in particular are undeniable; others have referred to The Beach as an updated version of Lord of the Flies for GenerationX. There are dark undercurrents here and like Trainspotting, The Beach captures something definitive about the 1990s. That said, I don’t see any reason this isn’t just as relevant for “millenials” as it was for GenX.
I found myself sucked into the utopia as it hurtles towards growing darkness for, as we all know, utopias are impossible and there can be no happy ending here. The whole thing reads like a dream or hallucination, which I can’t help but feel is a deliberate way to draw us closer to the characters within. The focus on the daily life of The Beach is what helps things feel intimate, so it becomes all the more impactful when things start to take a turn for the worse. That said, I didn’t find myself particularly connecting with the characters, not in any empathetic way at least. For someone who often dwells on the importance of character connection, I was surprised by how little this bothered me. I enjoyed the overarching exploration of the psychology of group dynamics and alternative societies and I think this is what made up for any lack of connection I felt. I found it appropriate and reflective of the society the characters inhabit, particularly as the entire novel is written from Richard’s perspective (and therefore with a considerable level of self-absorption). Like I say, I prefer novels that give me more connection but I can see why this worked.
I think my lack of empathy probably stems from a personal disconnect with the mentality of the characters as opposed to them being written that way, although I am sure this was also Garland’s intention. I love travelling and seeing new places but I’ve never been one of those people who thinks of travelling as something one should do in order to go and “find” oneself. This just brings to mind the image of jaded travellers searching for something new by doing the same thing as everyone else and later returning home to find the same problems they always had waiting for them. In a way, I think this is what The Beach is ultimately about.
The Beach is an excellent introduction to Garland’s brand of fiction and I highly recommend it, particularly if you are a fan of his other works such as 28 Days Later (2003), Sunshine (2007) and Ex Machina (2015).