In order to relive my November trip to South East Asia, I decided to bump The Beach by Alex Garland up my to-be-read list. It’s told from the first-person perspective of Richard, a gap year student in Thailand. When a half-crazed Scotsman named Daffy gives Rich a map to a hidden island, he and some fellow travellers decide to set out in search of it. Once they reach the secluded island and join its commune they declare it to be Eden, and do their best to forget about The World. But as tensions arise in the community and too many drugs start to distort Richard’s view of the Thai paradise, it begins to turn into a nightmare.
What struck me most about The Beach was the social anxiety constantly underlying the action. From the very beginning Richard puts a strong focus on recounting the reactions of all the other characters to everything he says or does, he details his often petty reasons for disliking someone and retells every social misunderstanding. This added to the tense atmosphere of the book and put me on edge. As the drama on the island begins to escalate so too does Richard’s tendency towards social anxiety, until he becomes very paranoid.
I also found Richard’s fascination with the Vietnam War interesting, he begins by just making occasional references to films set in the war, but as the novel progresses he actually starts referring to people as VCs (Viet Congs) and wandering around thinking in army speak.
As you may have guessed by now, seeing the beach from inside Richard’s head isn’t always a comfortable experience. On top of all of his other quirks, he suffers from vivid and violent dreams, which later progress into full-blown hallucinations. His personality also undergoes a journey, he starts off being rather likeable, but eventually shows himself to be completely self-absorbed and unconcerned with the lives of others. In fact by the end of The Beach the only two characters that I thought had any redeeming qualities were Étienne and Jed.
The tensions present in The Beach between group thinking and individuality, combined with its focus on the brutal side of human nature, make drawing comparisons between it and The Lord of the Flies by William Golding unavoidable. It’s an uncomfortable but thrilling experience for the reader, and while I admired it I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed it.