Book 1 – The Beach, Alex Garland
“I make quick judgments, often completely wrong, and then stick by them rigidly”. – Alex Garland; The Beach
Most people who have ever done any back-packing or travelling can agree on one thing: tourists fucking suck. Hell, you can just stay in a tourist-laden area for long enough, and you’ll probably be able to agree. They’re loud and obnoxious, and most of them have some sense of entitlement, but unfortunately a lot of people rely on them for money and survival. Hence the impetus of Alex Garland’s first novel, The Beach. We meet a couple of young, attractive, European backpackers in Thailand that are willing to follow a map that has been given to them by a crazy, suicidal man named Daffy Duck, which allegedly leads to a hidden island in the Gulf of Thailand. Yeap, they’ll listen to people who’re named after cartoon characters just to have that unique, pure, unadultered-by-tourists vacation. Of course, these people will tell you that certainly they’re not tourists, but it is hard for some people to see their own reality.
But, unlike everyone else that’s ever reviewed this book, including Nick Hornby, who sums it up as “a Lord of the Flies for Generation X” on the book jacket (That bastard, he’s so good at perfectly saying exactly what I want to say. Damn you Hornby, I’ll get the best of you one day!), I’m going to get through this review without one single reference to William Golding’s classic novel. Now for a brief run-through of the nitty-gritty. After some pretty tough obstacles, the narrator, Richard and the young, sexy, French couple Etienne and Francoise make it to the beach: an Eden-like oasis, inhabited by a virtually self-sufficient community of fellow travellers. Led by the dictatorial Sal (like Sylvester the Cat), and her boyfriend Bugs (like Bunny), whom along with slit-his-wrists-in-Bangkok Daffy (Daffy Duck), discovered the island six years ago, and have been living in a commune like setting with other, invite-only guests. Eventually the trio is accepted into the commune, since Daffy was kind enough to give Richard the map before the wrist-slitting act. Everything is all well and good, but since the novel is told in retrospect, you know from pretty early on that Richard a) makes it to the beach b) lives long enough to want to leave the beach and c) successfully makes it back to jolly ol’ London. So obviously, shit has to hit the fan for Richard to want to leave.
Eventually the community suffers pretty severe food poisoning, and the camp divides into multiple factions, since everyone knows Keaty, Richard’s best friend more or less, is to blame. Then there’s the shark attack, which kills two of the three Swedes, and sends the third one into a crazy frenzy. And of course, because bad things come in triplicate, Richard had previously given two other travelers a copy of the map. They show up on the island, but are caught by the heavily armed Thai marijuana farmers that live on the other side and shot up to hell. Everything comes to a head during the Tet festival, where the island-dwellers celebrate the anniversary of the community’s foundation. Richard is almost killed; the other community dwellers rip apart the dead bodies of the drug-farmer-killed travellers while in a moonjuice/marijuana frenzy; the Swede that survives the shark attack steals the only boat; and the Richard and his closest friends complete their plot to escape the island for good.
Sure, that’s just the cliffnotes version, but The Beach isn’t driven so much by plot. It’s more about the characters, and how they interact with each other. It’s an interesting take on the anti-Utopian novel: well written, lots of pop culture, and easy to relate to by most people of a certain age. How a normal person can be so wholly manipulated by another to violate his own personal beliefs. How people are willing to make ridiculous sacrifices to protect their own personal interests. That even in a bubble, societies will form and the inherent personality-related problems will develop, but eventually the conch shell breaks. (Damn, almost made it) It shows the psychology of being all alone, and makes one question what their own reaction to such foreign situations would be. Is protecting a secret island worth a person’s life?
“Though I walk through the valley of death I will fear no evil, for I am the evilest motherfucker in the valley” – Alex Garland; The Beach