Book Fiction Travel

The Beach

Alex Garland

Rating: 9 out of 10.

On it’s 25th anniversary, Garland’s debut novel, The Beach, remains as frenetic and brilliant as it ever was but now it benefits from nostalgia.

A true classic and not just in the travel genre.

It has been 25 years since Alex Garland arrived on the literary scene with his applauded debut, an anti-tourism novel which was quickly adopted by backpackers and travellers everywhere.

The story was inspired by the author’s time in the Philippines, particularly the beaches of Palawan island but he chose to set it in Thailand due to the greater familiarity of the travelling community.

25 years later the book has also become somewhat of a prophecy as we grapple with climate change, consumerism, over-consumption and the destruction of biodiversity, which are the fears of the anti-hero narrator Richard and his psychological companion, Mr Daffy Duck.

Daffy warns Richard that humans will destroy the Beach, a sanctuary for travellers who are bold enough to find it, travellers like him and his friends; Etienne and Francoise. Richard descends into a Colonel Kurtz-like madness becoming estranged from wider society that seems alien, perverse and hedonistic.

If you have not read it then I will not spoil the end but suffice to say, anything humans touch cannot remain unspoiled since they are predisposed to sharing and boasting which encourages ever greater numbers to arrive and upset the balance.

The writing is frantic and fast-paced but never disjointed. The dialogues are short but filled with emotion. Some members of the beach community lack characterisation but that could be because Richard is an unreliable narrator and relatively disinterested in some of them as people.

The true star of the novel is Richard’s interactions with Mr Daffy Duck, his psychological alter-ego who goads Richard into seeking masculine danger, inspired by the war he was promised in his youth Vietnam movies, Gulf War 1) but never volunteered for and his love of computer games.

If you have not read it then I would absolutely recommend it as a must-read but be warned, the novel is also the last great time before mass communication was enabled.

As an early millenial who grew up with an analogue childhood and a digital adulthood, The Beach was published at the point when such adventures could likely never happen again. The world is too saturated in mobile devices, cameras and instant communication.

In 1996, in order to communicate, we were still reliant on physical mail, long distance telephone or finding an internet cafe to send the occasional Hotmail or Excite email.

It was entirely plausible that someone could disappear into South East Asia for 6 months with minimal contact back home and only have a dozen grainy photos to show for their experience.

Today; such a world is just a memory.

In 2018 I visited Koh Samui with a friend and independent travel was extremely hard to find; I took my moped, against regulations, into the interior jungle, down unmarked trails, following locals who lived amongst the sweltering conditions and I still found intagrammers posing at rock formations.

We organised a boat incursion for snorkelling and travelled an hour to the marine park island of Koh Tao. Upon arrival we were dismayed to find over a hundred people posing specifically in the surf whilst taking selfies.

My friend Tony shrugged and said ‘it is a years worth of photos‘. I wasn’t sure I understood and asked him to explain further.

Instagrammers will take 200 or 300 photos and then drip-feed them into their feed every day so it looks like perpetual travel. This is just a job for them.

In that regard, The Beach has become a prescient prediction of everything that it feared. Masses of tourists, dumping tonnes of waste into biodomes for kudos and bragging rights.

As the stoic Jed asks partway through the novel –

One day I would like to ask the authors of Lonely Planet, what is so fucking lonely about the Khao San Road?

It is a brilliant read, but don’t be surprised if it leaves you disillusioned and yearning for a time that can never be regained.

Book Fiction

The Outsider

Stephen King

Rating: 3.5 out of 10.

The Outsider is a book of two halves; the first excellent but the second part ineffective and boring.

It begins as a gripping crime thriller with a nuanced plot and good dialogue and descends into a strange, non-scary monster hunt with vague references to previous novels which are not immediately clear.

It seems that King himself did not know how it ended so just wrote another 200 pages of X-Files mundanity.

I genuinely loved the opening chapters of The Outsider. King weaves a compelling whodunnit mystery with mountains of evidence stacking up against the prime suspect, Terry Maitland.

The character is brilliantly written causing the reader to doubt their own convictions; is Terry Maitland innocent or a stone-cold sociopath playing his captors?

King is clearly inspired by murder mysteries of old including Harlan Coben who features as a plot device. In actual fact, the novel is littered with pop culture references of all eras from Game of Thrones to the Beatles.

However, it is at the introduction of the character Holly and the Finders Keepers agency where the novel unravels and the mystery ends. If you have not read the previous Finders Keepers / Mr Mercedes novels then it is hard to drum up any affection for for the new protagonist who all other characters fawn over. It also veers the story sharply away from crime and into some easy-get-out supernatural territory.

The plot holes are filled in with Holly’s beliefs and prior experience of the supernatural. At one point she retells a story of a mass-murderer who transferred consciousness except we the audience don’t hear the story. She invites the other characters to sit and listen, they take their seats and King jumps to and when Holly was finally finished telling the tale the sun was just coming up. Huh? I haven’t read Finders Keepers so I have no idea what she told the other characters in this missing section of exposition.

Regardless, it was superfluous of the story. The novel descends into a run-of-the-mill X-Files mystery which is very light on scares or tension of any kind and a Deus Ex Machina ending to a gunfight.

The final showdown is, being honest, a huge let-down.

The third act is partially redeemed by the vivid characterisation of Lovie who was a pleasure to read but that was a highlight in a sea of boredom.

The whole novel is capped with a strange obsession with the character of Holly who is consistently complimented for her foresight, detective skills, bravery and whatever else King would like to reward her for. At one point she instructs another character, skilled in shooting, what they should do to escape a sniper. You can almost hear the experienced policeman saying good idea Holly. Notwithstanding the novel spent the first 250 pages building that policeman up to be calm and calculating under pressure particularly in violent scenarios.

The last sentence of the protagonist made a mockery of the entire character.

It genuinely feels like King wrote a phenomenal first half, could not figure out how to save the suspect and just resigned himself to oh it was a monster all along. A solid 250 page thriller becomes a meandering 560+ page let-down with a weird fetish for the nervous, anxious, anal-retentive Holly.

You can pick it up cheaply on Amazon, but I wouldn’t recommend it.