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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:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Alex Garland
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Alex Garland (IMDB)
    -PODCAST: ‘Civil War’ With Alex Garland: The writer and director of ‘Civil War’ joins to discuss the film’s cinematic style, the arc or his career, and more (Sean Fennessey, Amanda Dobbins, and Chris Ryan Apr 12, 2024, Big Picture)
-INTERVIEW: Director Alex Garland on ‘Civil War’: “Of Course It’s a Political Film”: Garland and the cast of 'Civil War' spoke about the process—and stress—of creating a film about the country at war with itself. (Stephen Garrett, 04/10/24, NY Observer)
    -PROFILE: “Think of Chaos”: Alex Garland’s latest fire starter, ‘Civil War,’ builds and builds toward one harrowing crescendo: an uninterrupted 15-minute siege on Washington, D.C. Here’s how he and his team turned the nation’s capital into a war zone. (Jake Kring-Schreifels Apr 16, 2024, The Ringer)
    -ARCHIVES: Alex Garland (Gizmodo)
    -REVIEW: of Devs (Craig Hanks, National Review)
-PODCAST Civil War with Alex Garland (THe Big Picture, )
    -PODCAST: 'Civil War' envisions a too-near future (Glen Weldon, Walter Chaw, Danielle Kurtzleben, Monica Castillo,Hafsa Fathima, Mike Katzif, Jessica Reedy, 4/12/24, NPR: Pop Culture Happy Hour)
    -PODCAST: The Chilling, Frustrating 'Civil War' (SONNY BUNCH, APR 23, 2024, Across the Movie Aisle_
-PROFILE: CIVIL WAR WAS MADE IN ANGER: What would it take for California and Texas to unite against the White House? Nothing good, according to Alex Garland. (David Sims, 4/08/24, The Atlantic)
    -INTERVIEW: Civil War director Alex Garland talks extremism, social division and the war against journalism (BRAD WHEELER, APRIL 10, 2024, Globe and Mail)
    -INTERVIEW: Civil War film-maker Alex Garland: ‘In the US and UK there’s a lot to be very concerned about’ (Ellen E Jones, 3/30/24, The Guardian)
    -INTERVIEW: ‘Civil War’ Director Blasts “Incredibly Dangerous” Political Divide in Interview: Filmmaker Alex Garland explained why it makes sense for 'Civil War' to come out during an election year, why Texas and California are allies in the film, and the slammed the political polarization: "One thing history shows us is that [no country] is immune. Nobody is exceptional." (JAMES HIBBERD, MARCH 15, 2024, Hollywood Reporter)
    -INTERVIEW: Alex Garland Dishes on Civil War's Powerful, Unforgettable Ending: Kirsten Dunst and Cailee Spaeny star in the new alt-reality action thriller. (Germain Lussier, April 12, 2024, Gizmodo)
    -PODCAST: The Chilling, Frustrating 'Civil War' (SONNY BUNCH, APR 23, 2024, Across the Movie Aisle)
-DISCUSSION: Critics’ Conversation: ‘Civil War’ and Civic Anxiety: Amid ongoing debate over whether Alex Garland’s latest film sufficiently spells out its stakes, two THR critics ponder the burdens of political art during a particularly fraught election year. (DAVID ROONEY, LOVIA GYARKYE, APRIL 23, 2024, Hollywood Reporter)
    -ESSAY: Why Is Civil War So Evasive About the Nature of Its Civil War?: Alex Garland’s studious “objectivity” isn’t enough. (SAM ADAMS, APRIL 13, 2024, Slate)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVE: Civil War (Metacritic)
    -FILM REVIEW: Civil War (Adam Nayman, The Ringer)
    -FILM REVIEW: Civil War (Suzy Weiss, Free Press)
    -FILM REVIEW: Civil War (German Lussier, Gizmodo)
    -FILM REVIEW: Civil War (Chad Byrnes, Village Voice)
    -FILM REVIEW: Civil War (NY Times)
    -FILM REVIEW: Civil War (Sonny Bunch, The Bulwark)
    -FILM REVIEW: Civil War (David HGarris, Spectrum Culture)
    -FILM REVIEW: Civil War (Bob Mondello, NPR)
    -FILM REVIEW: Civil War (David Gilbert, Wired)
    -FILM REVIEW: Civil War ()
    -FILM REVIEW: Civil War (Justin Chang, NPR: Fresh Air)
    -FILM REVIEW: Civil War (Zachary Lee, Christianity Today)
    -FILM REVIEW: Civil War (Ryan Zickgraf, Compact)
    -FILM REVIEW: Civil War (Osita Nwanevu, New Republic)
    -FILM REVIEW: Civil War (B. DUNCAN MOENCH, Tablet)
    -FILM REVIEW: Civil War (Charles Bramesco, The Guardian)
    -FILM REVIEW: Civil War (Economics Writing Every Day)
    -FILM REVIEW: Civil War (EISA NEFERTARI ULEN, Hollywood Reporter)
    -FILM REVIEW: Civil War (Jack Komaroff, Stanford Review)
    -FILM REVIEW: Civil War (Ross Barkan, Political Currents)
    -FILM REVIEW: Civil War (ALAIN_CATZEFLIS, The Article)
    -FILM REVIEW: Civil War (Rand Richards Cooper, Commonweal)
    -FILM REVIEW: Civil War (Chris Beck, Splice Today)
    -FILM REVIEW: Civil War ()
    -FILM REVIEW: Civil War ()

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)