Classic Books: The Beach

Travel was my bourgeois generation’s one big thing. No youth, no life was complete without a year spent backpacking around India and the Far East. At the time, Alex Garland’s The Beach felt like a guide. A closer reading will tell you that he was laughing at us the whole time.

Garland’s narrator is the embodiment of the tedious middle-class traveller. ‘Collecting memories, or experiences, was my primary goal when I first started travelling,’ Richard tells us. ‘I wanted to witness extreme poverty. I saw it as a necessary experience for anyone who wanted to appear worldly or interesting.’ This is the defining feature of his character – detachment. Detachment from the world he wants to see, and also detachment from himself.

The trait follows him into the most extreme situations. Fearing that he’ll drown while swimming between two remote islands, he distracts himself by imagining his own funeral: ‘I drafted some good speeches, and a lot of people came to hear them.’ When his beach paradise is menaced by gun-toting Thai guards, Richard is terrified, not of death’s prospect, but of how the thing will look. ‘Appalled, it dawned on me I was going to get shot first. First! If I had to get shot, then tenth, eleventh, twelfth – fine. But first. I couldn’t believe it. I’d miss out on everything.’

A corollary to Richard’s detachment is his love of games. A console game aficionado, his narrative is littered with references to the games I knew and loved as a boy – Mario, Sonic, Street Fighter II. He’ll spend paragraphs explaining how to defeat a particular boss, and to him the half-second before a player runs out of lives ‘provides a rare insight into the way people react just before they really do die.’ Moreover, Richard has a game for every occasion. To get to sleep he imagines himself in some F-Zero – style race game; stalking through the Thai guards’ dope field provides an opportunity to give himself points for not stepping on twigs: later – and in an indication of his growing madness – he spends a diverting few moments trying to create the perfect footprint on the sand.

There’s one experience Richard can’t purchase. The first chapter sums up his frustrated dreams and provides a portent of his later delusions. ‘Vietnam, me love you long time. All day, all night, me love you long time… Yea, though I walk through the valley of death I will fear no evil, for my name is Richard. I was born in 1974.’ 

The obvious significance of this last line – that Richard cannot possibly have fought in the Vietnam War – tells us that this is always going to be an impossible dream. Richard is doomed to live out a vicarious glamour through Dispatches and Platoon. Then someone slashes their wrists in a shitty backpacker hostel on the Khao San Road. Before dying, the mysterious traveller slips a map under Richard’s door – a map to the island utopia of the beach. Following the trail set by the deceased Daffy, Richard finds more and more opportunities to make his Vietnam dream a reality.

It turns out that Daffy was one of the three founders of the island commune, who left because he considered that it, like the Khao San Road, was becoming too full up. There are only around twenty people in the commune and their location is guarded with extreme secrecy against the Lonely Planet guide and the gurning hordes of the full moon parties. Yet still enough new people have arrived to compromise Daffy’s elitist vision: ‘Cancer back, no cure, malignant as fuck.’ Fellow islanders remark on Richard’s resemblance to the dead man.

Aside from their looks, the two have other things in common: a love of Airfix planes and computer games and, of course, a morbid interest in the Vietnam war. ‘Born twenty years too late?’ Mister Duck shouts in Richard’s dreams. ‘Fuck that!’ In another dream, both Richard and Mister Duck are children and they are in Daffy’s childhood home, flipping through classic photographs. Daffy enthuses over the iconic photograph of the Trang Bang air attack because ‘You can see everything!’ Richard is disturbed by this, but his attitude to Vietnam is not much better: he savours the pornography of violence from a position of safety in time and place.

Daffy first turns up in Richard’s dreams, but soon strolls into the narrator’s waking hours. Again, it’s a signifier of Richard’s crumbling sanity and morality. (‘Then I’m going insane,’ he tells Mister Duck, and gets the reply: ‘I’d only query the tense.’) By now Richard has been assigned lookout detail: he spends his days in the jungle overlooking the beach, keeping an eye on a group of other travellers on the neighbouring island – the perfect job for him, reinforcing as it does his fantasies of the DMZ.

To get to the beach, the new travellers must traverse several obstacles: the long swim between islands, the dope field patrolled by armed guards, the great jump down the waterfall. Richard has time and opportunity to warn the travellers of the danger well before this new group get to the dope field, but he chooses not to do so. As the potential new arrivals are about to be shot, Mister Duck begs with Richard to intervene. ‘Do something to help them!’ While in the past Mister Duck was a demon on Richard’s shoulder stoking his apocalyptic dreams, now he becomes the pleading repository of what’s left of Richard’s consciousness.

Michel Houellebecq said of The Beach that it illustrated ‘the curse of the tourist, caught up in a frenetic search for places that are ‘not touristy’, which his very presence undermines, forever forced to move on, following a plan whose very fulfillment, little by little, renders it futile… a man trying to escape his own shadow.’ We know that Richard is writing his account well after the events have taken place: time and distance have made him older, but not wiser. ‘I carry a lot of scars,’ he tells us. ‘I like the way that sounds. I carry a lot of scars.’

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One Response to “Classic Books: The Beach”

  1. gary davison Says:

    I remember picking The Beach up in Antigua. I’d ran out of stuff to read and went to the reception area and looked through the used books and The Beach looked the best bet.

    At the time, and I still think the same, it was a great great. Super story. And being a backpacker myself, it sat well with me, and it’s right what Houellebecq said about looking for somewhere not touristy. The Holy Grail of backpacking. ‘have you been to…’ answer ‘No mate.’ ‘Have you done…’ ‘No mate.’ good review, enjoyed it.

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