We don’t miss much about the Old Country (i.e. Chicago and environs), but it must be admitted, our little city of Elmhurst had (and has) a terrific library. Bright and spacious, chock full o’ books. And to top it all: an espresso bar! With pastries! Located right by the displays of new books. An irresistible combination on many a Saturday morning.
Nothing quite like that here, but I freely admit the library in next-door Calabasas is okay. Though espressoless it is bright and spacious. If not so chock full o’ books as the one we left behind, such books as it has will serve our simple needs. We signed up straightway, and then to inaugurate our shiny new library cards we each snagged a volume at near-random. Me, I brought home The Beach by Alex Garland. Had never heard of it, though it turns out to have been a bestseller back in the late 20th century, and provided the basis for a Danny Boyle movie of the same name.
Mr. Garland, born in 1970, tells a tall story about back-packing drugged-out 20 year-olds in the mid-nineties. A can’t-miss subject, but he doesn’t leave it at that. You might have thought a flat-out narrative of staying ahead of the tourists (and Lonely Planet writers) in the Far East would be enthralling enough, but Garland ratchets up the adventure. Our semi-psycho dopehead protagonist, youth-hostelling his way through Thailand, receives a map from a completely psycho dopehead who promptly suicides. The map leads our semi-psycho and some pals, a likewise footloose if less mentally disturbed French couple, to a secret paradisial island lagoon where other dopeheaded young travellers have set up what we are meant to see (I think) as the perfect vacation spot for Frisbee-tossing, Nintendo-obsessive, one-step-ahead-of-the-crowd post-college time-wasters, but which seemed to me more like a really, really unpleasant summer camp.
The Beach starts out funny, glib and intriguing. Lots of young-person smart talk from the Clinton era. The wisecracking and tomfoolery drops away as the story progresses, though. Turns out young people don’t get along all that well; jealousy and so on. And if mankind’s fallen condition weren’t enough to spoil the party, the secret island comes infested with a contingent of Thai dope growers. Their dragon tattoos and AK-47s bode ill. Bode accurately, too, as it turns out.
The novel devolves into Lagoon Mayhem. The pages become fairly sopping with many bodily fluids the least disgusting of which is arterial blood. There was no question of not reading right through to the end — you just have to know what happens even pretty much knowing already — but about halfway through I started getting the awful feeling that author was actually trying to make a point. About human nature or something. Maybe he did.
Me, I read it for the humor (at the start) and the suspense (in the middle) and all the gory action (climax). All that stuff I got in spades, so I was well entertained. If The Beach has any larger meaning, it’s this: Just say “No” in at least twenty languages.
By Alex Garland
(Riverhead Books,1997, Paperback, 436pp.)