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Seeking Eden on a Lonely Planet: Alex Garland's 'The Beach' and its Readers

Diana Maltz, "Assistant Professor of English, Southern Oregon University."


Beach holidays have become part of Western culture, and their popularity in part helps to explain the huge success of Alex Garland's, The Beach, and the film which was based on the novel. This article explores some of the issues the novel raises, and in particular the conflict between the tourist and the traveller.

    They say that as one navigates the hippy trail through Indonesia or Thailand, it is nearly impossible not to spot a young Westerner sprawled on the sand with Alex Garland's novel The Beach.   This cult paperback is now as much a part of the paraphernalia of the low-budget traveller as the inevitable cigarettes, Teva sandals, and lightweight rucksack.  Certainly among the general population, the novel's sales have been astronomical.  By February of 2000, 4 years after its publication, 700,000 copies of it had sold in the UK and 300,000 in the US.  Even before the release of the film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, it had been translated into 27 languages.[1]   This essay will speculate on the particular appeal of the novel among the very demographic that it claims to critique, backpackers on low-budget treks, and it will consider its status as a kind of Bible among them.  What does the novel satisfy in its traveller-audience and which of its images resonate with them?   What do readers choose to emphasize in their reception of the novel and what do they ignore?  As it asks these questions, this essay also examines the boundaries of difference as they exist in The Beach - between the western travellers of various nationalities who set up house on the beach, between these and the Asians who are absent from most of the book, and between travellers and tourists in general.

I.  Nostalgic Beach Nation

     In a recent essay on the phenomenon of global beach tourism, journalist Rolf Potts cites a 1999 study, The Tourist City, whose editors Dennis R. Judd and Susan S. Fainstein claim that "the globalization of mass tourism leads to an odd paradox. Whereas the appeal of tourism is the opportunity to see something different, cities that are remade to attract tourists are more and more alike."[2]  Potts adds, "Although the authors were referring to cities such as Atlanta and Baltimore, their thesis could just as easily be applied to international backpacker backwaters like Dahab in Egypt, Koh Samui in Thailand, or any number of other cut-rate beachfront Shangri-Las in places like Indonesia, Costa Rica or Madagascar.  These places, which have more in common with each other than with their home cultures, have come to constitute what might be called a trans-global Beach Nation -- a loosely-conglomerated free-market republic founded solely on its capacity to cater to the wants and needs of young budget travellers from industrialized nations.  The inevitable problem with the Beach Nation, of course, is that, through the very act of creating an infrastructure catering to these wants and needs, this place tends to mutate into a caricature of itself."  Potts concludes, "Foreign places invariably lose their foreignness as they adapt themselves to foreigners." A beach in Goa will be indistinguishable from one in Kathmandu, dotted with bootleg stalls, Pizza huts, henna-tattoo-artists, all-night raves and hordes of the Great Unwashed paying $2 a night for a hostel.

     Alex Garland's novel is not directly a critique of this phenomenon, though its characters are certainly disgusted by the overcrowding of their former paradises.  The novel instead focuses on their paranoia as they try to maintain a beach Eden of their own - which invariably means preventing its development by maintaining its secrecy.   They know that the beach is unspoiled and feel wonderfully privileged to live there and bask in its secret beauty. They are haunted by the desecration of former beauty spots throughout Asia.  This is the leitmotif throughout the book:  "Set up in Bali, Ko Phan Gnan, Ko Tao, Borocay and the hordes are bound to follow.  There's no way you can keep it out of the Lonely Planet, and once that happens it's countdown to doomsday…."[3]  The narrator Richard remembers the spoiling of various islands through a verbal concatenation of disappointments: "... the next August I learned that my babysitter's paradise was yesterday's news.  Ko Phan Gnan, the next island along, was Thailand's new mecca.  A few years' later, as I checked my passport and confirmed my flight to Bangkok, a friend telephoned with advice.  'Give Ko Phan Gnan a miss, Rich,' she said, 'Hat Rin's a long way past its sell by date.  They sell printed flyers for full-moon parties.  Ko Tao, that's where it's at.'"[4]  Watching island after island succumb to global entertainment marketing - with more "Ray Bans and concrete patios" springing up daily, the travellers are obsessed with finding and maintaining a place that is pure.  The founders of the beach have done that.  "[T]hey [see] that Ko Phan Gnan [has] maybe a year left" and they begin compiling provisions for permanent residence on their hidden beach some islands away.[5]  The community grows through careful selection of new travellers; among themselves, they harbor an increasing anxiety that they will be discovered.  The beach has already acquired a mythical status among travellers who seek it.  Consider the irony, then:  having colonized this fragment of beach and jungle, these travellers fear other colonizers, also white, but somehow, they reason, different.  How are they different?  Simply because they are more and because they are outside, uninvited. 

      Critics have compared The Beach to Lord of the Flies for its depiction of a utopia in disintegration.  The beach offers a happy amnesiac lifestyle of volleyball, soccer games and communal dinners until equilibrium is shattered by two catastrophes: a shark attack, which kills a beach member, and fatally wounds another while ultimately maddening a third, and a massive food poisoning, which heightens the alienation between opposing factions in the community.   With its young population, the founders have had no need of a hospital.  To bring the ill to the mainland might compromise the secrecy of the beach, - what to answer when someone asks, Where are you from?, -  and so the ill suffer and die on the premises.  Or rather, they are carried to the jungle and left there, while the festivities on the beach chillingly continue.  The terror of these cataclysmic events is underpinned by the narrator Richard's ongoing guilt and fear that he will be discovered for his own indiscretion.  In the first chapters of the book, while staying in a cheap guest house off the Khao San Road, he receives a map to the beach from a suicidal Vietnam vet named Daffy, one of the original founders of the beach.  Before even landing there, he has disclosed the island's location to two other hippy-travellers, providing them with a copy of his own map.  He now fears their arrival.  He unknowingly committed the ultimate betrayal before even joining the beach's community: he gave its location away. 

     Although they grasp the moral quandaries of the novel's protagonist and the growing corruption of the island under its megalomaniacal leader Sal, readers of The Beach are no doubt also nevertheless seduced by the initial images of the beach's unspoiled isolation, a purity sustained by its insider elite, a purity in direct contrast to the realities of the urbanized Beach Nation that they know firsthand.    The transglobal Beach Nation produces a lot of things: pollution, noise, waste, a demand for service industries, and a market for cheap, expendable commodities, - but above all, it produces nostalgia.  Alex Garland receives letters from readers of the novel who ask, "Where is this place?  Stop keeping it secret!"; they persist in believing that this ideal beach really exists.[6]

II. War Games, the Beach and America

     Although Richard is English, his frames of reference are consistently and familiarly American, a testimony to America's domination of the world market as a distributor not only of products, but of leisure activities, images and language.  Once he has found the beach and is adopted into its community, a relatively minor and almost sweet aspect of this Americanisation is the nightly ritual coined from the TV show The Waltons.  The beach's inhabitants say goodnight to one another in the longhouse, "'Night Cassie, Night Ella..." and down the line, a game of memory as each tries to name a name that hasn't been spoken yet.[7]  The ritual confirms the new arrivals' sense of inclusion into the beach's "family." As traditions go, it is corny, self-mocking, and universally understood as a textbook sample of popular American culture. 

     Consider that Richard is born in 1974: now in his twenties, he is unashamedly addicted to video games like Nintendo and Super-Mario, but more, to American-made Vietnam genre films of the 1970s and 1980s.  Garland associates one with the other: gameboy, its games of chasing and being chased, with actual games of war on the larger screen.   The narrative is threaded with cultural references to Oliver Stone's Platoon, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, and less respected but equally ubiquitous American television programs of the '80s like the A-Team whose protagonists are mercenary Vietnam vets performing a vigilante justice, "taking on bad guys the law couldn't touch."[8]  Richard has received a complete visual and aural experience of Vietnam second-hand.  We might claim that Richard the Englishman uses his Vietnam "memories" as a means of playing at being American.[9]

     To readers who grew up with the same cultural referents, the novel speaks a familiar language.  Richard is greeted at the island as an FNG, or Fucking New Guy, the term that GIs in Vietnam used for new arrivals.  Receiving this signifier, Richard recognizes that he is not alone in his Vietnam fantasy.   The travellers call their annual celebration of the beach's founding Tet.  They also distinguish their beach from "the World," a term that Richard recognizes from his war movies: this is how American soldiers in Vietnam referred to their lives back home in the states.  When Richard accepts the job of sentry later in the novel - watching in the trees for the sign of other Westerners who would 'pollute' the beach community,- he shrugs and paraphrases John F. Kennedy, "Ask not what your beach can do for you."[10]  On the mountain overlooking the shore, as he descends into a brief madness, his own heart of darkness, he imagines that he is witnessing the fall of Saigon, or that he is a young boy poring lasciviously and then doubtfully over a photo of a naked girl running, arms outstretched, down the center of a street, a photo we all recognize from Life magazine.[11] 

     This happens to be Thailand, but it could be anywhere, because the travellers superimpose their fictional Vietnam on it.  Early in the novel, walking down the Khao San Road in Bangkok, Richard hears a techno beat pumped out of fuzzy speakers, then Jimi Hendrix.  "Platoon. Jimi Henrix, dope and rifle barrels.  I sought out the smell of grass to complete the connection and found it through the stench of a hot gutter and sticky tarmac."[12]  Some pages later on the road, "Brown faces flashed past us through the green.  'Delta One-niner,' I muttered.  'This is Alpha-Patrol.'"[13]      

     The beach has its own dangers and they are thrilling to Richard.  The island is divided down the center by a waterfall and ravine.  While the prized utopian beach lies beneath the waterfall, above it are cultivated marijuana fields, monitored by armed roving Thai guards.  When Richard accepts the job as sentry later on, defending the beach from other western 'invaders,' - the friends he has invited - he gets to act out his fantasy of surveillance in wartime, silently evading the dope guards whom he pretends are Viet Cong.   Richard finds a kind of doppelganger in his friend Jed who agreeably and teasingly feeds Richard's constant fantasy that they are in Vietnam.  Contemporary travellers will recognize this fantasy and may sympathize with it.   Certainly, as Alex Garland has himself recently compained in an interview with Salon Magazine, the travel industry fuels a romance about reliving the Vietnam War.  Garland cites a Lonely Planet video guide that invites us to "fire an AK-47 and experience Vietnam."[14]

III.  Beach Identity

     A shade more perceptive than many young backpackers, The Beach's protagonist Richard admits, "I had ambiguous feelings about the differences between tourists and travellers - the problem being that the more I travelled, the smaller the differences became.  But the one difference I could still latch onto was that tourists went on holidays while travellers did something else.  They travelled."[15]  Though dubious about the distinctions, Richard calls himself a traveller, not a tourist; and with this term, he assumes a special comparative knowledge of the countries he visits.  The trick of the traveller is positioning oneself on the fringes.[16]  Knowledge is more than power; it is pride.

     Richard defines himself against what he is not.  In this competitive traveller environment, it is shaming to be called a tourist (which implies a lack of personal depth and discrimination) or a freak (which implies a lack of self-control).  Richard begins his tale on the Khao San Road in Bangkok, which he describes as the dividing line between east and west, a consumer glut of bootleg stalls and phone booths and cafes.  Here he encounters types (we might call them stereotypes): the ancient Thai crone at the guest house, the heroin hippy, the transvestite prostitute.   Richard's primal moment of shame occurs midway through the book when he returns to the mainland to gain provisions for the beach community.  He overhears a conversation between English and Australians, and intercedes, wanting to know why they refer to Cambodia as Kampuchea, its name under the Khmer Rouge.  The scene has a definite surreal feeling, as if these travellers have imposed a time warp on their surroundings.  When the Australian responds to Richard's musings, "Why are you bothering us mate..." and then mutters, "Another fucking space head, can't move for them, man," Richard, mortified, feels his ears burn and the tips of his fingers tingle.  He says, "I haven't had that feeling since I was a little kid."[17]  This experience confirms Richard's alliances with the beach and distance from the outside world.  "My beach, where you could walk into a conversation at any time between anybody, and the World, where you couldn't."[18]

      Richard refers to the individual residents of the beach by their original nationality.  Everyone in the community of the beach, with the exception of the black Londoner Keaty, is white, and his race simply does not come up as an issue.  Though it is an international set, nearly all the travellers hail from the US, Britain or commonwealth countries: Bugs is a South African, Jesse an Australian, Daffy a Scotsman.  The fissures of the beach community that exist before Richard's arrival seem to be between native English speakers and those outside of the colonial orbit.  The Yugoslavian girls are never individually named in his narrative, and as we find, the Swedes, who arrived uninvited, are semi-excluded and happy to fish on their own in their own boat.  It seems intentional on Garland's part that the victims of the shark attack would be Swedes, whose alienation does not rest on dark skin color but on their inability to communicate in English.  

     As Richard finds, his new friends do not identify themselves by their country of origin but by their favorite travel destinations.  And we might find in this a clue to their loss of moral center later on.   Their conversations consist almost obsessively of where they have been, as they exchange details of the best places to go and stay.  While its peace lasts, the beach reassures its residents of their status.  The mere fact that they have found the beach confirms that they are more than mere tourists.  The fact that they each contribute through various work-details means they are not helpless, self-indulgent "freaks."

IV.   Beach Myopia

      In an early conversation with his best friend on the beach, Keaty, Richard asks him his favorite place.  "Thailand.  This place, I mean.  It isn't really Thailand, considering there's no Thais, but... Yeah.  This place."[19]  As they exist, the Thais are literally on the margins of the beach island, and are equally marginalized throughout the book.

     One of our few encounters with an actual native from Thailand is the old crone Richard finds mopping the windows of the guest house.

She was completely soaked, and as the mop lurched around the windows, it skimmed dangerously close to a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling.

    'Excuse me,' I said, checking I wasn't about to be included in the puddle of potential death that was expanding on the floor.  She turned around. 'That light is dangerous with the water.'

    'Yes,' she replied.  Her teeth were either black and rotten or yellow as mustard: it looked like she had a mouth full of wasps.  'Hot-hot.'  She deliberately brushed the lightbulb with the edge of her mop.  Water boiled angrily on the bulb, and a curl of steam rose up to the ceiling.

    I shuddered.  'Careful! ... the electricity could kill you.'

    'Hot.'

    'Yes, but...' I paused, seeing that I was on to a non-starter language-wise, then decided to soldier on. 

    I glanced around.  We were the only two people on the landing.

    'OK, look.'

    I began a short mime of mopping down the windows before sticking my imaginary mop into the light.  Then I began jerking around, electrocuted.

    She placed a shrivelled hand on my arm to stop my convulsions.

    'Hey man,' she drawled in a voice too high-pitched to describe as mellow. 'It's cool.'

    I raised my eyebrows, not sure I'd heard her words correctly.

    'Chill,' she added.  'No worry.'

    'Right,' I said, trying to accept the union of Thai crone and hippy jargon with grace.  She'd clearly been working on the Khao San Road a long time.[20] 

This passage is important for at least two reasons.  First, it demonstrates Richard's initial moral status in the novel as a well-meaning bystander - he tries to save her,  - a keynote moment in a text that is anchored later on by moral decisions to save or not save others.  Richard's last deliberate act before he leaves the beach will be a mercy killing.  Second, the scene obviously shows the trickling down of American slang to the most unlikely of populations demographically - this ancient woman using the word "chill."   Likewise, at the guesthouse, Richard orders a banana pancake and a sprite for breakfast.  Garland reproduces the waiter's diction: "You wan one banan' pancake, one spri" and Richard later reflects that after OK, the most popular term in the world is Coke, as in coca-cola.[21]

     In answer to accusations that his novel is narrow and uninformed in its representations of Asia and Asians, Alex Garland has claimed that The Beach actually serves to satirize the narrowness of traveller subculture.  "I hear that The Beach is about Asia and that it is a bad book.  I think it's fairly obvious that it's really a book about backpackers. It's a document about a certain kind of traveller.  A lot of the criticism of The Beach is that it represents Thais as 2 dimensional, as part of the scenery.  That's because the people I'm writing about - backpackers - really only see them as part of the scenery.  They don't see them or the Thai culture.  To them, it's all a part of a huge theme park, the scenery for their trip.  That's the point.  This book is anti-traveller in a lot of ways."[22] 

      Garland's beach residents are complicit in a greater world economy of haves and have-nots, a point overlooked by readers who are invested in the purity of the beach.   The divides between beach life and "the World" are at most illusory.  For instance, the bountiful marijuana fields on the beach's island ironically locate the Thai dope growers within the global drug economy.  Their product will be sold on the mainland to Westerners and may even be exported to Europe and the US for sale there.  Similarly, for the beach to be truly independent of the World it would have to be self-sustaining.  To some extent, its inhabitants hold down small jobs: they work at gardening, fishing and carpentry in the mornings.  (Again, in imitation of the militarization of language in Vietnam movies, these are called "the fishing detail" and "carpentry detail.")  But the travellers do not grow rice, the staple of their diet, and so are dependent on the occasional "rice run" to Ko Pha-Gnan for survival (and it is on these excursions that they also pick up batteries for their gameboys and walkmans.)   In a short phrase, Garland mentions that the community's founder Sal provides money for the rice run.  Of course, she or someone else would have to; this mini-economy relies on a trust fund back in the World.

     Beneath the narrative of The Beach is the unspoken assumption of privilege.  It slips out in clauses like "a trip to India, 17 years old, [I had] more dope than sense..."[23]  In the novel's conclusion, Richard, recalling his escape from the island, says that it takes him and his friends 72 hours to obtain airline tickets and replacement passports from their respective embassies. "I had my last shivering attack getting cigarettes in the Bangkok duty free.  As soon as we boarded the plane, I felt OK." [24]   Knifed and bleeding, Richard has barely escaped the beach with his life.  His English bank account (or his parents' account) is a mere phone call away, and saves him as effectively as Keaty and the others do.

      Just as Richard observes the American enculturation of the Thai crone without overtly censuring it, he demonstrates his and his friends' privilege without consciously acknowledging, let alone deploring it.   Garland thus walks a fine line, for without Richard's admission of his complicity in global capitalism, Richard will appear complacent and uncritical of it.  "The Beach was meant to be a criticism of the backpacker culture, not a celebration of it," says Garland.[25]  "I hear wildly different accounts from backpackers on what, exactly, the book means. And I accept that I misjudged and failed to represent some things in the way I wanted to represent them, and that I left them open to interpretation. But what was I going to do? I was 25 years old; I'd never written a book before. I got some things wrong."[26] 

     Ultimately The Beach fails as a satire because of Richard's voice as a narrator.  Accepting that regions lose their authenticity once the hordes discover them, Richard participates in the snobbery of his subculture, and defends the sealing off of the island community.   I particularly locate the problem in Richard's tone, which is unceasingly deadpan and "cool" - exactly the tone one would expect in a novel written by a young man in his twenties who himself travels to the Philippines twice a year and has since he was 17.   (Garland, who has responded fairly responsibly to questions about global tourism in interviews, says that Richard is "basically me, when I was 18 or 19."[27] )  Following the heroes of his war films, Richard is intentionally impassive.  Early in the book he recalls his first experience of travelling, escaping a girlfriend's betrayal back in London.  "On the trip I learned something very important.  Escape through travel works.  Almost from the moment I boarded my flight, life in England became meaningless. Seat-belt signs lit up, problems switched off.  Broken arm-rests took precedence over broken hearts.  By the time the plane was airborne, I had forgotten England ever existed."[28]     As subjectivities and narrative voices go, this one has more than a hint of Hemingway.

'You're here about the guy who died, huh?'

'Yes.  I heard you were the one to find him.'

Fame.

'Yep,' I replied pulling my cigarettes out of my pocket.  "Found him this morning."

'It must have been bad for you.

'It was OK.  Do you smoke?'

'No, thank you.'

I lit up.[29] 

Similarly, Richard describes being fondled by a male prostitute in Bangkok with complete neutrality.[30]  Richard is ironically affronted by other characters' postures of masculinity such as Jed's militaristic alertness and Bugs's stoicism and boasting.  But does he mock himself?  Consider this passage: "I wish there'd been someone with a camera when I sauntered out of the mist with a dead shark over my shoulder.  I must have looked so cool."[31]  From what we know of the narrator, he may very well be stating this without any irony. 

     For the novel to work as a satire, Richard would have to be able to laugh at himself, to sacrifice his credibility as a narrator  - and astonishingly he does not, even as he apparently goes mad.  His madness is simply a heightening and dramatization of the fantasies that have propelled him across Asia.   Because of his war fixation and his desire to be emotionally impermeable, Richard is implicated in masculine ways of seeing and I would argue, following the work of Cynthia Enloe, that this masculine subjectivity feeds beach nationalism.   Richard's final words capture that ambiguity between satire and acceptance of his original belief that the Vietnam war and violence and machismo are "cool":  "I carry a lot of scars.  I like the way that sounds."[32]  He is self-conscious enough to hear himself saying it and adolescent enough to like himself saying it and to say it again, with emphasis: "I carry a lot of scars."  That is the final line of the book.  The average 19 year old male, carrying his battered paperback across Asia in search of Eden, will read it uncritically, will admire Richard's cool rather than smirk at it, and will adopt Richard's ways of seeing as his own.


REFERENCES



[1] These statistics are from Sue Wheat's interview with Garland, "Beach Nut," for Salon Magazine, Feb. 11, 2000. www.salon.com/travel/feature/2000/02/11/garland. 

[2] Dennis R. Judd and Susan F. Fainstein, The Tourist City (Yale University Press, 1999) cited in Rolf Potts, "Live from the trans-global Beach Nation." Salon Magazine, Feb 11, 2000. www.salon.com/travel/diary/pott/2000/02/11/transglobal.

[3] Alex Garland, The Beach (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1997), 139.

[4] Garland, 49-50. 

[5] Garland, 137.

[6] Wheat.

[7] Garland, 120.

[8] Garland, 69.

[9] I am grateful to Professor Alisdair Spark of King Alfred's College, Winchester, UK for pointing this out to me and for his generous comments on an earlier draft of this essay.

[10] Garland, 218.

[11] Garland, 226-7.

[12] Garland, 22.

[13] Garland, 37.

[14] Wheat.

[15] Garland, 96.

[16] Richard starts to deny the facile distinction between traveller and tourist, but does not permit himself to carry his critique to its conclusion: that the traveller is simply a scruffy species of tourist.  The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman claims that the postmodern world has created four types in place of the earlier pilgrim.  There is the tourist who seeks variety and excitement through experiences away from home; the vagabond, who moves because settled places are denied him; the player, who perceives life as a game and lives to adapt to new situations through skill, perception and deceit; and the flaneur, or stroller, who enjoys the surfaces of the city and seeks no meaning beyond them.  Garland's beach residents would likely define themselves romantically as vagabonds, claiming that they are driven to see the world out of an independent spirit.  In doing so, they would be using the word anachronistically.  Bauman's postmodern vagabond wanders against his or her will, and is embodied in the contemporary refugee or homeless person.  It is fair to say that Richard and his friends follow a loose itinerary as they travel from region to region prior to settling on the beach: this purposefulness defines them as tourists.  Because of their economic security, none of these travellers is a "player" (though near the end Etienne briefly adapts to being one when he steals a wallet for cash to return to the mainland). Finally, because of their aversion to conventional tourism and their self-identification as old-fashioned pilgrims, they would balk at being called flaneurs.  However, in an interview that I cite in the main text of this essay, Garland characterizes his beach members as shallow visitors seeking to manifest "a huge theme park" rather than to learn a culture.  The difficulty is that Garland has not really represented them as such.  For Bauman's classifications, see his Postmodern Ethics (London: Blackwell, 1996).

[17] Garland, 177.

[18] Garland, 177.

[19] Garland, 127.

[20] Garland, 13-14.

[21] Garland, 12, 110.

[22] Ron Gluckman, "Footsteps on the Beach: On The Beach with Alex Garland."  Asian Wall Street Journal, February 19-20, 2000. www.thaistudents.com/thebeach/garland3.html

[23] Garland, 20.

[24] Garland, 438.

[25] Gluckman.

[26] John Tayman, "Trouble on Fantasy Island." Travelogues. Outside Magazine, January, 2000.  www.outsidemag.com/magazine/200001/200001beach3.html

[27] Gluckman.

[28] Garland, 115.

[29] Garland, 18.

[30] Garland, 22.

[31] Garland, 201.

[32] Garland, 439.


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