Saturday, December 5, 2009
Fantasy, Generation X and Backpackers: The Beach
Ever spent a little time away from real life? Ever lived far from home, immersed in an alien culture in which you can be a new person? In such circumstances, do you reckon you’d be attracted or repulsed by thoughts of home? In Alex Garland’s The Beach, young travelers escape from the troubles of The World by retiring to a place that, oddly, is not made to seem much more pleasurable than the world they left behind.
The novel takes the form of a classic adventure story. In a Bancock hostel, Richard, a young English Generation X-er, is entrusted with a map by a suicidal Scot who calls himself Daffy Duck. The map supposedly leads to an Eden-like island off the coast of Thailand where a group of backpackers, or ‘travelers’, as they like to be called, have set up an idyllic community. Richard hooks up with two French youths, Etienne and Francoise, and all three head off to find the Beach.
The book feels like a slight read- slighter by far than the classics to which it’s often compared, Heart of Darkness and Lord of the Flies. If there’s a deep lesson here about man’s endless quest for unspoiled paradise, it’s hard to spot it amid the breezy writing and endless joint-rolling. Garland’s prose fairly flies off the page, making The Beach a literal page-turner. On a sentence level, he’s an extremely skilled writer.
As narrator, Richard’s thought processes are extremely natural, and it’s easy to identify with the little mental games he plays constantly. Trailing through the jungle at night, he pretends that every snapped twig costs him a video game-inspired ‘life’. Avoiding dope-guards, he pretends that they are Vietcong soldiers. As a Generation X kid, he’s been brought up on a diet of videogames, movies and pop-culture that colours how he interprets the world. He frequently likens his Thailand adventure to the Vietnam war- not the real Vietnam of course, but the glorified cinematic version pedaled by Oliver Stone and Stanley Kubrick. If he can liken his own situation to a situation from movies or TV, he is likely to lose his already-fragile handle on reality. This tendency goes so far as to cause him to take serious risks and make questionable decisions. Hey, if the A-team could swim through shark-infested waters, so can Richard, right? He’s such a relatable character that it takes the reader some time to realize that he’s actually a bit of a dick.
There’s a lack of irony throughout that is refreshing. Garland has little criticism for backpacker culture, probably because he’s a fan of it in real life. I wonder how Richard and his gang would fare if they met up with the small-minded backpacker twerps from Are You Experienced (another classic 90's travel story, written by the deeply cynical William Sutclife). Much potential ridiculousness is avoided due to the lack of any of the New Age nonsense that often comes with this territory. In fact, Garland is very clear that the Beach community have no philosophy whatsoever. They just work, eat and have a good time.
A serious flaw with the novel is how the Beach itself is viewed by Richard and the others that live there. For starters, they are already all feckless travelers, having traipsed across Asia, Africa and Europe to a man. They’re not exactly buttoned-down cubicle-jockies, and even before they reach the Beach they weren’t exactly living in what might be called the ‘real world’. Little detail is given about Richard’s life in England, but we are given no reason to suppose that he is unhappy there or in need of escape from anything. Beautiful and isolated as the Beach is, there seems little contrast between the characters lives there and their lives before, making the plot escalation about the impending destruction of life on the Beach a little underwhelming. They enjoy living there, but it doesn’t seem to have changed them in any way. Swim, catch fish, eat. Meh.
They scorn what they call The World, but they have failed in any meaningful way to live apart from it. Beach life is notably non self-sustaining, as they are reliant on occasional trips to the mainland to purchase rice, as well as the batteries they need for their Gameboys and other ‘essentials’. Seriously- much of the text is given over to who has the Gameboy, what their high score is, and when they're getting their next shipment of batteries. We are meant to accept that the Beach, at least at first, is the ultimate getaway from the world, but at the same time the characters there seem not to have lost their interest in it. Richard frequently doesn’t seem too pushed about whether he continues living there or goes home, and when he finally makes the decision to leave, he convinces several others to accompany him with almost pathetic ease. So when the shit does hit the fan and the community collapses, it’s sometimes hard to feel that much has been lost.
Of course, it’s possible that this is deliberate, and that the point of the book is actually how jaded Generation X are, and how they have it so easy that they don’t really appreciate anything, and how pop culture means more to them than real life. In this interpretation, by portraying the Beach as not being completely awesome, Garland sacrifices making the book work as an adventure story in favour of providing some deep social commentary. But somehow I doubt that that’s what he meant.
The Beach is definitely worth a read. Find a battered old copy in a second-hand shop and stick it in your bag alongside Lonely Planet and some pre-rolled joints, and you probably won’t be disappointed. Millions weren't. All the same, I have some deep reservations about anyone whose ultimate fantasy island getaway-situation involves a Nintendo Gameboy.