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24th August
2010
written by Steph

One of the places I’d really like to travel one day (and trust me, there are so many) is Thailand. I’m intrigued by the food, the people, the culture, and of course the geography. From the jungles, to the cities, to the beaches, Thailand is a place I can imagine spending a lot of time exploring. If plane tickets over to Asia weren’t so prohibitively expensive from the East coast of North America, you can bet that I’d have already been there by now. Alas, ticket prices being what they are, for now I’ll have to slake my desire for Thailand through fiction. Of course, one of thing I’ve found is that it’s not all that easy to find fiction set in Thailand, and certainly not fiction written by native Thais (at least that’s been translated into English). Mostly I’ve resorted to picking up books by farangs (Westerners) set in Thailand when they’ve appealed, which is perhaps less than ideal, but beggars can’t be choosers, after all. A few years ago I read Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski, which took me into the wilds of Thai hillside tribes. Recently on a whim, I picked up Alex Garland’s The Beach, which took me to the Southern reaches of Thailand, allowing me to vicariously visit its lush, tropical beaches. This is another book that is potentially more famous for its film incarnation, though perhaps infamous is best used in this case. Not that I can speak from experience, because yet again, I’ve not seen the movie (although my friend Abby assures me it is worth watching). I pretty much went into this book not knowing all that much about it, just that it took place in Thailand and that maybe drugs were involved. Both of these things wound up being true to some extent (well, ok, the Thailand part is entirely true), but there was a lot more to the book than I expected. The Beach begins with Richard, a young English backpacker, touching down in Bangkok, staying in a hostel on the raucous Khao San Road. That evening, he hears a Scottish man in the room next door who is a state of great agitation and is clearly upset about some beach. The Scot tries to engage Richard in a somewhat hostile conversation, but Richard wants no part of it. The following morning, Richard finds a map stuck in his door that identifies a position of a beach… and also finds that his next-door neighbor is dead, having slashed his wrists. During the investigation into the death, Richard befriends two French travelers who are also staying at the hostel, and they decide to try to make their way to this mysterious beach. Thus begins a journey with consequences that none of them could ever have predicted… When I trawled the reviews of this book on GoodReads, I must admit that I was pretty shocked to see it had so many 5-star ratings, many by people who claimed they had read the book several times over. I thought it was a fun, fast read, written with short, breathless chapters, each one like a tiny surge of literary adrenaline.  It was packed with action, and was a smooth read that was easy to read in huge chunks, but I suppose I just didn’t find it lifechanging or stunning as a piece of literary fiction. It felt very much like the kind of book you read while lounging by the pool; it’s easy to see how it could be transformed into a bigscreen, popcorn blockbuster as it’s got sex, drugs (though not nearly as much as you’d expect), danger, and secret communities in abundance. Still, I found many of the twists that occur to be rather obvious because Garland is rather heavyhanded with much of his foreshadowing (is it really surprising when a shark shows up once again in the book when on the first encounter the chapter is called something like “Jaws, part one”?), such that when something really big happens, its impact is somewhat mitigated that you’ve been primed to suspect it for quite some while. Also, I have to say that even though the book lulls you into this sense that all these terrible bad things are going to happen, I never felt that that the “big bads” were all that big or even all that bad. It felt a bit like things were moving at cross purposes, because there is this definite vibe that there is the utmost of dastardly deeds going on at the Beach, when really I felt Garland was trying to achieve a more slickly sinister evilness, one that has less to do with extreme situations and more to do with human nature. It’s like taking a quiet, poem by Auden and then setting it to wild and crazy pop-music fronted by Lady Gaga… it doesn’t quite work, even though there may be merits to each, and maybe the two have the potential to speak on a topic that is superficially similar. It’s not that active evil and inherent evil are mutually incompatible, just that I felt the two weren’t as nicely juggled as they could be. Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a dumb book, or one that’s pap fiction and nothing more. It’s intriguing and engaging, and certainly a page-turner that has more than just a single layer (I mean, it makes allusions to Heart of Darkness, after all). But I still don’t get how or why one would read it more than once? I just didn't think there was much more than one what grasps on a first reading hidden in its depths; we we’re dealing with dark and murky waters here, but rather crystalline, limpid pools where the matter below the surface was magnified rather than obfuscated. Maybe some readers really loved how Garland examines the different facets of human personality and the way we join together to form tribes, but I didn’t think there was anything there that was sufficiently revelatory or novel that I’d want to keep revisiting it in future readings. As for the message that travel guides have ruined travel for those searching for the authentic experience, I’m of mixed mind on that one. Sure it’s annoying to wind up in a foreign land surrounded by more Americans or Canadians (or whomever) than you’re likely to meet back home, but isn’t this more an issue for people who rely solely on guidebook recommendations, never straying from the beaten (or “lonely”) path to strike out on their own and experience local culture. Unless you refuse to make connections with local people, I don’t think guidebooks can really ruin a country. Yes, there are fewer and fewer places in the world that are hidden and isolated, but such is a necessary result of global travel becoming increasingly popular. Maybe the Thai beaches of today are nothing like what they were 30 years ago, but hey, at least this means people are interested in Thailand! If it means one more American gets a passport and sees a little bit more of the world, quite frankly, I’ll take it! I honestly think that the more we open ourselves up to new experiences through travel and encounters with things that force us outside the comfort-zone of our day-to-day life, the better the world will be. While I fully acknowledge that sometimes a good part of travel is about getting away, rarely does this mean cutting oneself off from the rest of civilization for large chunks of time. All in all, a fun book that allowed me to travel somewhere thrilling and new, all the while within the comfortable solitude of fiction and its relatively budget friendly affordances. I loved the descriptions of Thailand (though I could have done with more!), but rest assured: should anyone ever offer me a map to a place that seems too good to be true, no matter where I am in the world, I’ll be sure to say no! Lesson learned! Rating: 3.5 out of 5

10 Comments

  1. 08/24/2010

    I haven’t read this book, but do remember vague snatches of the movie, which I saw many moons ago. Truthfully, the only part I remember is the scenes in the pot fields, which just shows you where my mind was at when I saw the movie. I also don’t understand why this would be a book that many people would read several times because it seems pretty straightforward and like something that would only be intriguing the first time around. Well, to each his own, I guess! I might try to pick this one up for a weekend read because I think it might be interesting to read a little about Thailand.

  2. 08/24/2010

    I liked this book, but I’m with you, once was enough. I have, however, seen the movie multiple times. I’ve met others who think the movie is just terrible, but I’ve always enjoyed it. Although I recall a strange video game-ish sequence in the movie that seemed odd.

  3. 08/24/2010

    I never read this book but I remember when the movie came out (Leonardo DiCaprio, yes?) and it sounded a little creepy. I never really wanted to read the book after that, but I could see it being a very interesting way to get more information about Thailand’s islands.

  4. I love a bit of armchair travelling 😉 A combination holiday to Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore is very much at the top of my destination wishlist at the moment.

    I read The Beach about a decade ago (before the movie was released, which I’ve seen once and remember being quite trippy) and recall enjoying it; I doubt I’ll ever reread it, even out of curiosity (I have a hopeless retention for books, hence why I now blog!) I think my tastes have developed since then and what once I thought was particularly good would be now mediocre.

  5. 08/25/2010

    @ zibilee: I have a feeling the movie emphasizes the pot fields aspect; it certainly is part of the novel, but it’s more of an ominous shadow for most of the time rather than being the main focus.
     
    @ charley: I watched the trailer for the film on Netflix and wasn’t especially blown away, but I’ve heard the scenery is spectacular, so I’ll probably watch for that reason alone! 😉
     
    @ Aarti: Yup, this is a Leo DiCaprio film! I didn’t have a huge burning desire to read this one, it was definitely a whim choice, but it was certainly fun for what it was, and definitely a little creepy.
     
    @ Claire: Malaysia and Singapore are on my wishlist too… Along with Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and well, pretty much everywhere in S.E. Asia! 😉
    I could see maybe being really enamored with this one when I was a teen, but like you, my tastes are probably sufficiently evolved now that while this was fun, it wasn’t life changing.

  6. I haven’t read the book, but I enjoyed watching the film when it came out – that seems like ages ago now! I have heard that the book is much better so I’m not sure it is worth you watching it – other than out of curiosity.

    I’m a big fan of armchair travel too. I don’t think I’ve ever read any books set in Thailand though 🙁

  7. 08/25/2010

    I also always wondered why this became a cult-book. It’s an interesting enough story, but (as you rightly said) one you take on vacation and read by the pool.

    We always travel with a copy of Lonely Planet, it’s great for the highlights and restaurant recommendations, but there’s nothing like going off the beaten track.

  8. 08/26/2010

    @ Jackie: I might watch the film just for the scenery, but even then, I don’t know that I’ll be rushing out to see the film!
    Also, I ‘d love it if I could find more books set in Thailand that weren’t simply from the perspective of Westerners experiencing the country/culture, but for now I’ll take what I can get!
     
    @ Alex: Lonely Planet is one of my favourite travel guides, too. I think it provides the greatest range of experiences and accommodations for different budgets, but I never stick strictly to any one book, and am always up for exploring on my own.

  9. 08/29/2010

    I agree with you. My expectations were really high because of all the great reviews. But, this was just not thaaat great for me…particularly as I read it just after “Lord of the Flies”, which was totally mind-blowing

  10. 08/30/2010

    @ Nishita: Yes, I was reminded quite a bit of Lord of the Flies while reading this one, but I agree that’s a much more chilling and thoughtful book in the end. This was fun, but I doubt people will be reading it 50 years down the line.

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