By Alex Garland
A huge commercial and critical success, I find The Beach an easy book to like but hard to get excited about. It’s a great beach read, to make the obvious joke. By calling it that I mean it’s plot-driven, without any confusing structural or stylistic detours, and has the right heft for a week of vacation.
If calling The Beach a beach book makes it sound like a light read I’d say that’s a fair judgment. Is that very lightness part of its point though? It’s often described as a novel of Generation X, and Richard (the narrator) seems like Gen X-lite to me. He has a head full of pop culture references (meaning movies not books). He likes to smoke cigarettes and marijuana equally. He is unattached and doesn’t seem to have any strong feelings about anything. In sum, he is a comfortably well-off citizen of the world, and the beach, which is an idyllic post-scarcity environment, suits him nicely.
That sense of weightlessness jars, however, with much of the critical praise the book received. It is, for example, often compared to Heart of Darkness (by way of Apocalypse Now) and Lord of the Flies. Unlike those books, however, it has no political or moral message. The beach-dwellers have created a perfect little commonwealth which isn’t upset from within in any kind of allegory of political corruption but is rather destroyed by external forces (a shark attack, and a gang of armed dope farmers who descend at the end, literally, like a deus ex machina). More tellingly, the group does not succumb to any latent evil or sinfulness, or regress to a state of savagery. The violence isn’t a commentary on original sin or human nature but the result of accidents, misunderstandings or, finally, a transformation of most of the tribe into maenads through the consumption of drugs and alcohol. What this means is that while the story is presented as a kind of parable or even allegory, there is no real point to it or lesson to be drawn. Conrad and Golding were saying something about the human condition. Garland is describing some weird shit that happened (or might have happened) to a young fellow while on vacation.
But, as I’ve already suggested, is this lack of meaning perhaps the point? Richard is less a representative of Generation X than he is a pre-Millennial. The beach is his social network where he casually, even almost without agency, friends and unfriends people. Or it’s a virtual space like one of those sim civilizations. The goal is to get a high score, whether on the Nintendo Game Boy or through the collection of exotic memories and experiences. Either way it is not the “real” world (which is in turn referred to simply as “the world” from the perspective of the beach). Richard even takes this removal from reality a step further, seeing himself as the star of a movie mash-up of various Vietnam War flicks and talking to an imaginary dead friend.
If there is a point it’s that fantasy gets dull after a while. It’s hard to understand how so many of the beach-dwellers have been there for years, doing nothing. “It would be sad to be bored of Eden,” one of them says to Richard, “If you are bored of Eden, what is left?” This is the end of history, not with a bang or a whimper but a yawn and a flickering screen. Game over. Richard “at this exact moment” sitting at his computer. Which I think we’re meant to realize is where we’ve been all along.
Review first published online September 5, 2016.