CE Brandon Lowry Explores The Beach by Alex Garland
“You fish, swim, eat, laze around, and everyone’s so friendly. It’s such simple stuff, but… If I could stop the world and restart life, put the clock back, I think I’d restart it like this. For everyone.” Alex Garland, The Beach
Paradise. It’s a word defined by its connotations. Paradise means something different to each of us, but all versions are connected by the promise of a place where the trials and tribulations of everyday life fade away, and there is only peace. It’s a rare thing, an experience yearned for, and when finally achieved, is fleeting. Some spend their entire lives seeking paradise. But everything comes at a price. How far would you go to achieve your ideal life? What would you do to keep from losing it?
These are the questions raised byThe Beach, the debut novel by Alex Garland. The author puts us in the shoes of Richard, a young Englishman backpacking his way through Thailand. Richard is loosely based on Garland himself, the son of an English cartoonist, who spent much of his late teens and early twenties exploring and living in southeast Asia1. Garland chose Thailand as the setting forThe Beach based on the nation’s reputation as a backpacker destination. Intended as an indictment of backpacker culture, Garland’s dry wit and mastery of the written word creates a compelling cautionary tale that warns against the escapism that often drives people to leave their homes in search of a mythical ideal.
Garland’s travel experience shines through in his work.The Beach opens with Richard checking in to a hostel on Bangkok’s infamous Khao San road. Speaking as a veteran of Asian hostels, his description of the place as a cramped, well-used space with little to no privacy rings absolutely true. At one point Garland describes in startling detail an experience that I myself had while wandering the streets of Bangkok. Richard turns a corner to find himself at a bridge over a canal:
It was hardly picturesque but I stopped there to find my reflection and follow the swirls of petrol color. Along the canal banks, squatters’ shacks leaned dangerously. The sun, hazy throughout the morning, now shone hard and hot. Around the shacks a gang of kids cooled off, dive-bombing each other and playing splashing games.
These touches make the novel come alive for the reader, and doubly so for the traveler following in Richard’s footsteps. The authenticity is tangible, making it that much more real.
Central to The Beach’s backpacker culture is the pursuit of escape. When we first meet Richard, he has no travel agenda other than following his feet. A chance encounter with a deranged stranger leaves Richard in possession of a map to a hidden island beach. The stranger’s sudden death sets Richard on a quest to find the beach, accompanied by new friends Etienne and Françoise. The promise of a new escape pushes the trio to do things they might otherwise never have done, including making illicit payments to shady locals for transport, abandoning their luggage and passports, and swimming through over a mile of shark-infested waters. As the novel proceeds, Richard begins to slip further and further into his fantasies of being a soldier in Vietnam, escaping even from his own consciousness. It all blends together to create a picture of listless youth with no higher goal than complete and total disappearance from the world.
This sense of escape as an ideal is strengthened by the reverent tones used to describe their hidden hideaway:
Think about a lagoon, hidden from the sea and passing boats by a high curving wall of rock. Then imagine white sands and coral gardens never damaged by dynamite fishing or trawling nets. Freshwater falls scatter the island, surrounded by jungle— not the forests of inland Thailand, but jungle. Canopies three levels deep, plants untouched for a thousand years, strangely colored birds and monkeys in the trees.
This mythical getaway is based on Koh Phi Phi Marine Park, a set of islands just off the coast of Thailand; it’s the same location where the 1999 film version of The Beach was shot, and just like in the novel, it is off limits to tourists. However, the beaches at Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, located a short drive south of Hua Hin, also embody that feeling of unsullied natural beauty. Walking in the powdery, soft sand, it’s hard not to romanticize a life of quiet solitude amongst the trees. If you’re interested in more spiritual pursuits, you can visit Phraya Nakhon cave, which houses a Buddhist temple consecrated by the kings of Thailand.
Arriving at the beach, Richard and his friends find a functioning communal society of fellow backpackers. The island conclave is complete with permanent structures, jobs, and holidays. They are quickly adopted into life in the commune, provided they are willing to be active members of society. In what is perhaps the book’s strangest twist, the backpackers accept the drudgery of work and the responsibility of personal relationships so long as it guarantees a place in their newfound paradise. In this way The Beach pushes beyond the dramatic and touches the everyday.
Throughout the novel, Richard’s ability to maintain this new life is challenged. For example, at one point he finds a dead body while on a trip to a nearby city for supplies. Richard is presented with a choice: either report the body to the authorities and potentially reveal the beach commune, or do nothing. In the end, he walks away, his desire to do the right thing overpowered by a willingness to maintain an idyllic lifestyle. The intensity only builds from there; as Richard loses his grip on his sense of self, his moral sense goes with it, crescendoing to a gut-wrenching final decision. Through his actions, we are forced to reckon with our own and wonder how often we act against our better moral judgement in order to maintain the status quo. Or, put another way, to escape from consequence through inaction.
The Beach serves as a reminder that travel, done correctly, should be an escape into reality, rather than from it. Sure, you could stay at one of the many all-inclusive resorts found throughout Thailand, the kind of place with high garden walls that keep locals out and tourists in. But you’d be missing out on the natural and cultural beauty found in this amazing country. Beautiful forests, spectacular Buddhist temples, and the kind and generous Thai people await just beyond those walls. After all, the real purpose of travel is to experience life, and not to flee from it.
Gluckman, R. “A Backpacker Looks Back in Anger”. The Wall Street Journal. 19 Feb, 1999.
About the Writer:
J Brandon Lowry is O:JA&L’s Contributing Editor for Literary Tourism (Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific). Lowry is a PhD scientist turned full-time traveler and writer. He is a freelance science writer, travel writer and editor for The Places We Live, and creative writer on Medium. While traveling the world with his wife, Dr. Lowry takes cues from the environment around him to inspire characters and locations for his first novel, a science-fiction sibling rivalry tale.
Images: “The Beach” from source IMDb. Photographs “From the bridge over the canal,” “The Buddhist Temple at Phraya Nakhon cave,”and “Beach at Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park” by Jen and J Brandon Lowry.