Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Slacking Toward Bethlehem

By Julie Birnbaum

FEBRUARY 23, 1998:  "I wanted it to be an anti-travel book," 26-year-old British author Alex Garland told The Providence Phoenix of his debut novel. It's true, The Beach takes guidebook-hooked backpacker culture, turns it on its head and shakes it. It's many other things as well: a suspenseful action novel, a classic paradise-turned-dystopia story and a unique new voice in the growing Gen X genre.

Set in Thailand, the novel begins as narrator Richard arrives at a Bangkok hostel and takes his place among the other, rather burned-out young Western travelers in search of adventure. "I want to do something different, and everybody wants to do something different," Etienne, who is staying in the next room with his girlfriend, tells him. "But we all do the same thing."

Following a mysterious map drawn by another neighbor, who taped it to his door just before slashing his wrists, Richard and the couple go in search of the beach. Among the backpackers in Southeast Asia, they soon learn, the story of the beach is circulating as a sort of urban myth. Though no one knows whether it is fact or fiction, the beach is rumored to be an Edenic paradise, an unspoiled haven for travelers.

Told in brief, cinematic scenes and a taut, simple prose style, Garland manages to capture something of the jaded collective spirit of those raised on video games and Vietnam war movies. He succeeds where other writers before him--burdened with the Gen X label and straining to capture its pop-culture-riddled voice--have failed. For this, in the year since the hardcover edition of his work was published, he has been hyped as The Voice of the Twentysomething Generation. And also as Britain's most eligible bachelor--Vogue called him "the man to have." The movie rights have already been optioned to Danny Boyle, director of Trainspotting and Shallow Grave.

Hype aside, the novel is undoubtedly a great accomplishment, especially as a debut work, and its appeal is larger than just that of an anthem for Generation X. Once the travelers arrive and find their community of pioneers and their Eden, the story spirals almost psychedelically into a timeless story of the violent social collapse of paradise. It is informed equally by Lord of the Flies and Heart of Darkness as by Space Invaders and Platoon. Using the clear lagoons of paradise as the psychological backdrop, Garland's is a fresh vision of humanity's desire to create utopia and then to belong to it. The Beach is both universal and marked by its era--one in which Game Boy and dope are as much a fixture on the island as fishing spears.

Richard is the classic unreliable narrator, but his shiftiness has an undeniably '90s quality. He is obsessed with Vietnam and action movies to the point of madness, addicted to nicotine and stoned more often than not. As the novel progresses, his nightmares about Mister Duck, the suicide victim and former resident of paradise who registered at the hostel as Daffy, become constant, insane visions. And far from being a passive observer to the beach's downfall, Richard is as active and desperate a participant as the others.

Though at times the superficial exchanges between the characters and the dialogue come across as banal, in the context of the novel these moments seem self-aware. The characters, all of an information-saturated generation, are all in search of something different, an unspoiled spot that can't be found in a guidebook by just anyone. They are in search of true adventure and individual experience but have trouble experiencing life first-hand. The dialogue between them shows their inability to communicate on any profound level; its clichés are sadly ironic rather than weakly authored.

As the adrenaline-flooded final scenes of The Beach draw to a close, the reader comes away with more than the enjoyable catharsis of an action novel's end or the pleasure of reading a genuine voice from a generation that is often reduced to a stereotype for easy market targeting. Its look into the sinister underside of paradise is timeless and should be appreciated as the achievement it is. (Riverhead, paper, $13)


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