A Review: The Beach

  • Category: Miscellaneous
  • Words: 1978
  • Grade: 60
Confidently exploring every traveller's remote island and secluded beach fantasy, Alex Garland tantalises the consequences of life on the paradise on earth, conveniently being 'the Beach'. The author's utopian debut novel illustrates (using notably clear prose) a traditional tale of generation resentment and confusion appearing influenced by film, in its theme, its narrative style and the fixation of the main characters, especially the protagonist.
Bangkok's backpackers' quarter, the Khao San Road, is where the novel begins in 'a decompression chamber for those about to leave or enter Thailand, a halfway house between East and West' (p. ).
At a guesthouse on the outskirts of Bangkok, a disturbed, suicidal Vietnam veteran, called Daffy Duck (more Warner Bros. characters to follow!) gives a young, British traveller named Richard a map to paradise, a secret beach on an inaccessible island near Ko Samui, isolated, unspoiled and 'not-yet-featuring' in the latest Lonely Planet Guide... That very night, Duffy Duck cuts his wrists destined to play with Richard's imagination. Accompanied by Etienne and Françoise, a young French couple who are fellow travellers (and guesthouse residents); Richard sets out on an udventure to find the beach.
From the very beginning of The Beach, the reader is faced with a book about filmic archetypes or clichés and wild imagination, that is made clear in the single page of text in italics with which the book opens. It is hallucinating and intoxicated, a climaxing of voices, beginning with a Vietnamese(?) prostitute ('All day, all night, me love you long time'), switching to a scene of paranoid combat ('this is Alpha patrol and we are taking fire'), and with an interesting identification of stereotypical Vietnam movie moments: 'Dropping acid on the Mekong Delta, smoking grass through a rifle barrel, flying on a helicopter with opera blasting out of loudspeakers, tracer-fire and paddy-field scenery, the smell of napalm in the morning.' The cliches are multiplied to the point where they start communicating amongst themselves generating a stimulating excess of signification. A controversial issue often debated on postmodernism discussions (Umberto Eco in Lodge 1988) is the process by which 'kitsch', under conditional reception by an attuned audience can allegedly achieve something no far from classical art forms. Garland in this novel has attempted it through a wide range of symbols quickly identified by fellow 'Generation Xers' leading to what Eco identifies as the birth of a cult in his journalistic essay on Casablanca the film (Lodge 1988). The Beach is filled with a number of references to popular (low?) culture of the 1980's: Atari and Nintendo video games, Tin-tin and Asterix comics, Warner Brothers cartoons, Airfix models, The A-Team and the film Zombie Flesh-Eaters.
The Beach clearly is a criticism of this backpacker culture even anti-traveller in a lot of ways. More general observations about Thailand and Thais are yet again clichés illustrating a wider point: the unimaginative and incurious nature of the backpackers who really only see them as part of the scenery. They don't see them or the Thai culture. To them, it's all part of their trip. One dimension of the author's approach to SE Asia in general, can be partly explained if one considers the term "˜Orientalism' (developed by Said) as a discussion of the West about the East evident throughout the literature that has been built up since the renaissance (Lodge 1988). Said in his book "˜Orientalism' (1978) implies the above-mentioned discourse inevitably constructs "˜certain stereotypes which become self evident facts, and also in conscious or unconscious collusion with political and economic imperialism' (Lodge 1988:294). Today would be relevant to include the cultural dimension.

In the tourism literature one often comes across the dichotomy regarding the terms traveller and tourist. The connotation of the terms today is significant and undoubtedly varies. In order to be able to understand the attributes of these terms and draw comparisons, different tourist/traveller typologies must be considered. Those based on sociological criteria following a structural approach examine the predetermined roles which society has attributed to the tourists, while a behaviourist approach may be used to analyse the psychological characteristics (Sharpley 1994). The way Garland displays the perceived differences in the Beach is particular witty.
On the search for a perfect beach in Thailand, Garland wrote: "There's no way you can keep it out of the Lonely Planet, and once that happens, it's countdown to doomsday."
In the chapeter called Prisoners of the Sun, where the protagonists engage into not a great deal more than the average sunlust tourist, the following lines stand out:
"˜"¦they had guide book written all over them..'
"˜"¦I"˜m going to find one of those Lonely Planet writers and I'm going to ask him, what "˜s so f***ing lonely about the Khao San Road?'
Everyday life on the beach notably appears to have amnesiac effects; with Richard and the French couple quickly integrating themselves into the community allocating themselves into the existing teams of fishers, gardeners, carpenters and cooks. Everyone appears learns little about his companions apart from their national origin. 'The only talking topic that stretched beyond the circle of cliffs was travel . . . Even now, I can still reel off the list of countries that my friends had visited' Richard notices after several months living on the beach. The only indication of the outside world is a single Gameboy, a symbol denoting what they have left behind, most commonly addressed to in the novel as the 'World'.

There is suspense as well, indeed for much of its length The Beach is simply an efficient and rather traditional story about young people having adventures in an exotic setting. Will Richard and his two friends make it to the beach past the men guarding the marijuana? Will he escape from the tunnels of a water-filled cave? Will other travellers find the beach and jeopardise its secrecy? On an expedition to a nearby tourist is land to buy rice for the camp, Richard is self-righteously disgusted by the loudness and sloppiness of those who inhabit 'the World'. Then, just before sailing back, he comes across the body of a recently dead junkie, lying beside his sleeping girlfriend. In order to save her from the shock of finding him, as he rationalises it, he moves the body and buries it in a shallow grave.
So the nastiness begins, and it proceeds not with the acceleration of a thriller but episodically and unevenly. To his delight, Richard is given responsibility for patrolling the island and keeping an eye on the cannabis guards, which allows him to indulge to the full his Vietnam fantasies. He has violent and hallucinatory daydreams about the dead Daffy Duck. A series of disasters overtakes the travellers, beginning with an outbreak of food poisoning and culminating in deadly violence and finally in escape from the island.
Richard's increasingly casual attitude to death, including his own, is the principal development in his character. Observing his friends' reactions to 'death' at the end of a video game, he says that this 'provides a rare insight into the way people react just before they really do die'. Staring down a gun barrel, it dawns on him that he is going to die before his friends. 'If I had to get shot, then tenth, eleventh, twelfth - fine. But first. I couldn't believe it. I'd miss out on everything.' Unnoticed by the characters, images of real war flicker in the margins of the story. During one of their dream meetings, Daffy Duck shows Richard the famous photograph of the naked Vietnamese girl fleeing the napalmed village. 'You can see everything!' Daffy Duck burbles, resolutely missing the point, 'All her bits.' Watching Schindler's List, Richard's attention is drawn to the young girl in the red coat who is first seen in the ghetto, and later heaped onto a pile of black and white corpses. The significance of the moment is lost on Richard and his companion, who are characteristically preoccupied with the technique by which the red coat was created. 'Do you reckon they painted it on the film with a brush?' . . . 'No way. They would have done it with a computer, like Jurassic Park.'

Despite superficial similarities, The Beach has none of the moral despair of Heart of Darkness. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish Richard's awkwardness and blind spots from those of his creator. Most striking is the absence of any sexual intrigue among the travellers, apart from Richard's in conclusive crush on Françoise.
Danny Boyle directs from a screenplay by John Hodge, based on the acclaimed novel by Alex Garland. Andrew Macdonald is the producer. The cinematographic adaptation of the Beach sounds promising since it also marks the fourth collaboration between the trio, whose previous credits together are "Shallow Grave", "Trainspotting", and "A Life Less Ordinary".
The movie is an assured blockbuster, since the same team that made the hip smash Trainspotting casted international super-star Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role ().
Ever since Maya Bay, in Thailand's Phi Phi island chain near Phuket, was anointed The Beach in the 20th Century Fox film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, the spot has been anything but peaceful (). And since the perfect beach happens to be in a national park, allegations about officials accussed of selling out Thailand's natural heritage have been wide-spread. At the same time though there would be a number of Thai people who managed to earn some much-needed income though the multi-million Hollywood budget.
The book is an remarkable commentary on the silliness of some arrogant, young tourists, who call themselves travellers - a special variety apparently more sensitive to the local cultures and locations they exploit which can even be a Natonal Park with sensitive ecosystems.
"The main function of the street was as a decompression chamber for those about to leave or enter Thailand, a halfway house between East and West." But when East meets West, in real life, the West takes over. And Thailand is no exeption to the globalisation of economies, more accurately the westernisation of societies (namely McDonald diet, CD quality and backpacking!).
The exactly size of the backpacker market in Thailand is not known. "There is no information specifically on the backpacker market," says Seree Wangpaichitr, governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (in Gluckman 1999) yet more than 2.6 million tourists aged 15-34 arrived in the first 10 months of 1998 representing approximately 35% of all visitors .
Seree (in Gluckman 1999) says: "Contrary to popular thought, backpackers are a good source of business. Their average stay is between one and two months. They are culturally sensitive, stay in small lodges, eat in roadside stalls and travel by public transportation. That means jobs at the grassroots level."
Who would argue that failr point? Tourism has long been one of Thailand's biggest foreign exchange earners and the pressure is on to push the numbers even higher. Due to their current contributions to the economy backpackers are more than welcome - in Thailand anyway.
Seree also suggests (in Gluckman 1999) that many are the "corporate executives of the future". For better or worse she may well be right!
February the 17th sees the release of The Beach film. By then, Alex Garland's book will be as popular as ever -common trend for books that are being adapted to films- bringing The Beach to the attention of millions more around the globe. Some of whose footsteps will appear in Maya Bay within the context of international tourism verifying the increasing popularity of South East Asian destinations, and the hipness of the destination as a pop art (film) setting.


Gluckman, R. (1999) On the trail. Big bucks in backpacking. Accessed on 01 November 1999

Sharpley, R., (1994) Tourism tourists and society. Huntigton: ELM Publications.

Garland, A., (1996) The Beach. London: Penguin Books.

Lodge, D., editor (1988) Modern criticism and theory: A reader. London and New York: Longman.

Footsteps on the Beach (1999) visited on 01/11/99

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