Like many readers of a certain disposition, I love Alex Garland. The fact that he is responsible for a stunningly high percentage of my nightmares does not make me love him less, but more.
I have just re-read The Beach. I vividly remember the first time I read it, as a skinny teenager who hung out in strip malls. I couldn’t relate to the book at all, not then, not now. I am neither a traveller nor an adventurer. I am, on most days of the year, a tourist.
It is this inability to relate that allowed me to initially keep the narrative at an arm’s length. I marveled at Richard’s fucked-up antics from a safe distance (Richard being the protagonist, of course). But the story nipped at my subconscious. Richard nipped at me. I wouldn’t say I came to the point of hallucinating him, but I did find myself carrying on conversations with him in my head.
Set in Thailand, The Beach has been criticized by painting a flat, one-dimensional portrait of Thais. However, what people seem to have missed is the fact that this was a very deliberate move on Garland’s part. Many backpackers, even some folks whose intentions are basically pure, do not view “the natives” as fully human. This fundamental disconnect is one of the main reasons why the “paradise” discovered by Richard and his fellow traveling companions is, at its core, a rotten sham. Though then again, Garland is not preachy. The happy times spent times on the beach are as genuine as the horror that follows.
There are many parallels to be drawn between The Beach and Lord of the Flies, or The Beach and “Apocalypse Now.” But what this book makes me think about is actually Milton and “Paradise Lost.” I think about Adam and Eve getting chucked out on their asses from Eden, and I see The Beach as documenting that desperate, sweaty, human elbow-jostling to get back in.
I like the references that Garland makes in his work. People have slammed him for being “unoriginal,” but I rather see him as extremely perceptive, drawing on rich source material of cultural experience, tipping his hat to everyone from Graham Greene to George Romero, but doing it in such a way that a gesture is sublimated into a thing of startling beauty. There’s nothing sly or gimmicky about him when he does this.
“28 Days Later” wrecked me. Andrew O’Heir wrote something about how it was lame, and how “Day of the Dead” was so much better, and I could not have disagreed more. There are many similarities between the frenzied violence of that film and of Richard’s ruminations on danger and death. Richard is someone who craves horror, and “28 Days Later” says, “be careful what you wish for, Richard, my lad.”
I see that movie everywhere. There’s a particular shot of people running in the video clip for My Chemical Romance’s “Teenagers,” and that’s a “28 Days Later” type of shot, and puts the song in a completely different perspective for me.
There was some guy who kicked my cab last night (I have no idea what that was about), and that strange outburst snapped me back to “28 Days Later,” and my palms began to sweat. If that’s not a testament to Garland’s creep-tastic genius, I don’t know what is.