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The Beach ()

This wildly over-hyped first novel, which was followed by a supposedly dreadful Leonardo DiCaprio film version, gets by mainly on the strength of references to classic (especially Vietnam-era) literature and modern pop culture and a sado-masochistic plotline where Gen-X gets taught a lesson.  In the story of a young backpacker in Southeast Asia, who finds a kind of utopian commune on an island beach off the coast of Thailand, Garland seems to be quite consciously summoning everything from Lord of the Flies to Gilligan's Island.  And he explicitly invokes The Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, etc., and a wide range of video games with which I'm not familiar.  The result is a book that's achingly aware of where it's coming from, but teases us by wandering down the paths of its various sources only to end up in dead-ends.  So, when we finally do get where we're going we feel a tad ill-used.

The book begins with our putative protagonist, Richard, in Bangkok, where a bungalow mate tells him how to find the island and then commits suicide.  Richard and a French couple set out to find the much-rumored beach and, after some reasonably exciting difficulties, do so.  The denizens don't seem to have much of a philosophy or a sense of mission; they're content just to have found a beach that other tourists haven't "ruined".  Their days are spent in fishing, gathering food, and performing a variety of other mundane tasks just aimed at keeping their community going.  They divert themselves with a few sports contests, a Gameboy, and a lot of dope, illicitly obtained from a local field that is the domain of a scary group of armed men, with whom they have an implicit non-interference agreement.

Over the course of the novel the tension begins to rise within the community and between the beach dwellers and the dope growers.  Richard fears that a couple fellow travelers with whom he shared the story of the beach may show up and get him in trouble with his reclusive comrades.  And we gradually realize that Richard is a rather unreliable narrator, as his drug use, which requires ever bolder incursions on the drug fields, and his imaginary conversations with the dead guy who told him about the beach start to obscure reality.  Even more startling is the way in which he seems to want to create his own version of the Vietnam experience on the island.  He's itching for trouble and we're pretty sure he's eventually going to find it.

The book maintains a compelling atmosphere of dread and Mr. Garland is an effective story-teller, but there's a sort of dissatisfying hollowness to the whole affair.  The dialogue is almost entirely pointless and that seems to be the author's intent.  The islanders lack of any meaningful goals makes their group seem temporary almost by definition, so we're never emotionally invested in its survival.  We know that as soon as they're found the group will collapse, because the beach won't be "cool" anymore.  Meanwhile, their coolness is an inadequate hook for our rooting interest.  Worst of all, because they don't believe in anything interesting, other than a kind of dubious communal ethos, and because they have nothing interesting to say, it's not apparent that Mr. Garland even wants us to care that they and their Beach are doomed.  In fact, there's guilty pleasure to be had in watching it all come a cropper.

It's not a bad book, and I can accept that Mr. Garland's message may be that this generation of young people lead lives that are so devoid of purpose that they have to live vicariously through cultural reference to other people's experiences, that the highest aspirations of his generation, their visions of Utopia, amount to nothing more than an unlimited supply of pot and an undiscovered beach on which to smoke it and play Tetris.  But if that's all this was about, it seems like he could have conveyed that message more quickly.  Four hundred something pages was a long time to spend with a group of characters who even their creator seemed to want dead.


Grade: (C+)


See also:

British (Post War)
Alex Garland Links:

    -REVIEW: of Devs (Craig Hanks, National Review)

Book-related and General Links:
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of The Beach
    -INTERVIEW : Backpacker Blues : Nancy Rawlinson hears why Alex Garland is unsure of his own writing success (Spike, May 1999)
    -INTERVIEW : Beach nut : An interview with Alex Garland, bestselling and occasionally controversial author of "The Beach." (Sue Wheat , February 2000, Salon)
    -INTERVIEW : Beach Boy : 26-year-old Alex Garland, author of the harrowing novel "The Beach," talks about the quest for mystery in a world that's too well known. (DWIGHT GARNER, Febnruary 1997, Salon)
    -INTERVIEW :   A Million Tiny Decisions Made By Alex Garland That Affect You and Me (Space Age Bachelor)
    -INTERVIEW : POSTCARDS FROM THE BEACH : The backpacker book, The Beach, became a breezy bestseller long before Leo was signed to play the lead role in the blockbuster picture being filmed in Thailand by the "Trainspotting" team. A hit on the backpack circuit, the novel has been largely misinterpreted in Asia, and abroad. Now, the author, Alex Garland explains his inspiration and intention in writing The Beach (Ron Gluckman, Wall Street Journal)
    -INTERVIEW : On The Beach : Alex Garland follows up his astonishing first novel and talks about Leonardo DiCaprio and the price of fame  (Jeff Baker, March 10, 1999, The Oregonian)
    -INTERVIEW : with Alex Garland (Books, etc.)
    -PROFILE : Plot dries up for Beach writer (Vanessa Thorpe,  June 24, 2001, The Observer)
    -The Footsteps on the Beach web site : brought to you by students and teachers at Sriwittayapaknam School in Samut Prakan, Thailand
    -ESSAY : The Word: The New Puritans  (Emma Yates, Books Unlimited, 27 September, 2000)
    -ESSAY : The route to literary success: be young, gifted but most of all gorgeous : Agents accused of touting talent to publishers like a ' beauty pageant' (Fiachra Gibbons, March 28, 2001, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY : Utopia and Rational Thinking on The Beach (BBC)
    -ARCHIVES : alex garland (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : alex garland (Mag Portal)
    -REVIEW : of The Beach By Alex Garland (David Sacks, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Beach (Julie Birnbaum, weekly Alibi)
    -REVIEW : of The Beach (RICHARD GEHR , Salon)
    -REVIEW : of The Beach (Steven Kelly, Richmond Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Beach (Elizabeth Schmidt, Boston Phoenix)
    -REVIEW : of The Beach (Daniel Stepp, Lonesome Road)
    -REVIEWS : of The Beach by Alex Garland and The Tesseract by Alex Garland (Richard Lloyd Parry, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of The Tesseract (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of THE TESSERACT By Alex Garland (Elizabeth Schmidt, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Tesseract by Alex Garland (David Wiegand, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of The Tesseract by Alex Garland (Randall Holdridge, Tucson Weekly)
    -REVIEW : of The Tesseract (Jonathan Wilson, Voice of the Turtle)
    -REVIEW : of The Tesseract (Victor Velasco, GetAsia)
    -REVIEW : of The Tesseract (Hal Jacobs, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
    -REVIEW : of The Tesseract (RICHARD GEHR, Village Voice)
    -REVIEW : of The Tesseract  (Andy Beckett, ZA Play)
    -REVIEW : of The Tesseract (James Lough, The Denver Post)
    -REVIEW :  of The Tesseract  (Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor)
    -REVIEW : of The Tesseract  (LORI REESE, TIME)

    -FILMOGRAPHY : Alex Garland (
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Danny Boyle (
    -INFO : The Beach (2000) (
    -BUY IT : The Beach DVD (Amazon)
    -ARCHIVES : Salon on "The Beach"
    -REVIEW : of The Beach (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Beach (James Berardinelli's ReelViews )
    -REVIEW : of The Beach (Seth T. Hahne, Christian Spotlight on the Movies)
    -REVIEW : of The Beach (ELVIS MITCHELL, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Beach : No phone, no lights, no motorcar -- not a single  luxury! Leonardo DiCaprio and the "Trainspotting" creators can't rescue Alex Garland's trouble-in-paradise bestseller from trite moralizing. (Stephanie Zacharek , Salon)
    -REVIEW : of The Beach (David Edelstein, Slate)
    -REVIEW : of The Beach (Todd R. Ramlow, Pop Matters)
    -REVIEW : of The Beach (Cynthia Fuchs, Pop Matters)
    -REVIEW : of The Beach (Mick LaSalle, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of The Beach (Bob Thompson, Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW : of The Beach (Kenneth Turan, LA Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Beach  (Jaime N. Christley, Film Written Magazine)
    -REVIEW : of The Beach (Steve Kong, Hard Boiled Movie Guide)
    -REVIEW : of The Beach (Jason Anderson, Eye Weekly)
    -REVIEW : of The Beach (Michael Elliott, Movie Parables)


I am trying to write an essay on this book for english and am difficulty with it, i don't know why Garland make Richard and Daffy have so much in common. what is he getting at?

- Dee

- Jan-19-2006, 11:56


Junk and a waste of time. The guy can't write. Why did I buy the paperback to begin with? I got sucked in by the hype, all the bogus b.s. blurbs on the back cover. It doesn't happen very often with me that I let the con artists on all the major publishing houses payrolls con me this way...but it happened here and, like I said, the book is poorly written and is nothing but a waste. No, couldn't get through all of it, either. Read a few chapters at the beginning...and that was more than enough.

Is it any wonder we don't trust the big houses these days and are not all that eager to lay down our hard-earned money for the garbage they put out?

- K.A.

- Feb-13-2004, 08:18