Less than two years after the publication of Alex Garland’s first novel, The Beach, one of cinema’s most fashionable young directors (Danny Boyle) and its most adored male star (Leonardo Di Caprio) are about to make a film version of it, a remarkable achievement for an author of 28, but in other ways an inevitable one. Few novels are so influenced by film as this one, in its subject-matter, its narrative technique and the preoccupations of its characters. From the very beginning, The Beach announces itself as a book about cliché and fantasy, about the pleasures of life projected onto a mental cinema screen. This is made clear in a single page of italicised text which would (and perhaps will) work, virtually without alteration, as the pre-credit sequence in a film. It is delirious and intoxicated, a crescendo of filmic voices, beginning with a Saigon whore (‘All day, all night, me love you long time’), switching to a scene of jungle combat (‘this is Alpha patrol and we are taking fire’), and climaxing with a compendium of Vietnam movie moments: ‘Dropping acid on the Mekong Delta, smoking grass through a rifle barrel, flying on a helicopter with opera blasting out of loudspeakers, tracer-fire and paddy-field scenery, the smell of napalm in the morning.’
The characters in The Beach talk of ‘klicks’ rather than kilometres, of ‘taking point’ rather than walking at the front, and keep an ‘RV’ rather than a rendezvous. They relish Nam slang and acronyms: ‘Fragging. Bagging. Klicks. Grunts. Gooks. Charlie. MIA. KIA. LZ. DMZ. FNG.’ Walking along the streets of a South-East Asian city (it is Bangkok, but this hardly matters), the narrator passes a bootleg tape stall where Creedence Clearwater and Jimi Hendrix are being played, and this provokes a stream of associations: ‘Platoon. Jimi Hendrix, dope and rifle barrels. I sought out the smell of grass to complete the connection.’ Much later in the book, in a moment of extreme danger, he ticks off with satisfaction the cinematic features of his situation: ‘binoculars, jungle, a quarry, a threat, the hidden presence of AK47s and slanted eyes’. But there is ‘a missing element … a Doors soundtrack’.
That all this takes place in Thailand rather than Vietnam makes little difference because this book is not really about South-East Asia (although that is its setting) or about the Vietnam War (although that is its protagonist’s great obsession). It is not about travel (although its characters are travellers), nor about drugs and violence (although the story contains plenty of both). It is a book about images of all these things, especially war films, and it assumes a knowledge not of battles and Asian geopolitics, but of actors and Hollywood screenplays. Its narrator – and no doubt a large proportion of its many readers – is a man fascinated by savage, tropical war who is too young to have any memory of such a thing. ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of death I will fear no evil, for my name is Richard,’ the prologue (which is called ‘Boom-Boom’) concludes. ‘I was born in 1974.’
Richard’s nostalgia is not so much for the Vietnam War as for his own fictional encounters with it:
I saw 84 Charlie Mopic in 1989. I saw Platoon in 1986. My friend Tom said, ‘Rich, you want to see Platoon?’ … We went to see it that night at the Swiss Cottage Odeon, screen one, 1986. 1991, standing in an airport lounge, looking for something to pass the hours over a long flight to Jakarta. ‘Eric Lustbader?’ suggested Sean, and I shook my head. I’d seen Michael Herr sending dispatches. The hours flew by.
The Beach is studded with non-cinematic references to popular culture of the same Eighties vintage: Atari and Nintendo video games, Airfix models, Tintin and Asterix, David Attenborough’s Life on Earth, Warner Brothers cartoons, The Waltons and The A-Team, the film Zombie Flesh-Eaters.
The novel begins in Bangkok’s backpackers’ quarter, the Khao San Road, ‘a decompression chamber for those about to leave or enter Thailand, a halfway house between East and West’. Richard, a newly arrived young Englishman, checks into a cheap travellers’ hostel where he encounters a disturbed fellow traveller known as Daffy Duck. That night, Mr Duck cuts his wrists, but he leaves for Richard a map showing the way to a secret beach on an inaccessible island near Ko Samui, a legend among backpackers, isolated, unspoiled and unknown to the Lonely Planet Guide. Accompanied by a young French couple, Etienne and Françoise, Richard sets out to find it.
In the course of the book we learn in detail about Richard’s taste in video games and the countries he has visited. We learn from him the best way of spearing fish, how to pick up a jellyfish without being stung, and how to make alcohol out of coconuts. It is possible to work out that Richard is 20 or 21; there are vague mentions of former girlfriends, and parents back in London, apparently separated. But we are never told Richard’s surname or given more than the sketchiest biographical information. Similarly, the details of the journey to the beach are practical and particular: negotiating to hire a boat, keeping rucksacks dry on the swim over to the island. More general observations about Thailand and Thais are perfunctory clichés of the straightforwardly lazy, rather than cinematically allusive, variety. A beautiful tourist resort ‘is a travel-brochure photo’. A passing transvestite is ‘stunning’ with ‘hips to die for’. The reader is not the only one faced with these gaps. ‘I knew nothing about the past lives of my companions, except their place of origin,’ Richard suddenly notices after several months living on the beach:
I’d spent countless hours talking to Keaty, and the only thing I knew about his background was that he used to go to Sunday school. But I didn’t know if he had brothers or sisters, or what his parents did, or the area of London where he grew up … The only talking topic that stretched beyond the circle of cliffs was travel … Even now, I can still reel off the list of countries that my friends had visited
This is unlikely (how many Englishmen encountering one another abroad do not make immediate inferences, based on accent, colour and mannerisms?), but it illustrates a wider point: the unimaginative and incurious nature of the backpackers.
Alex Garland has written of his admiration for Kazuo Ishiguro (some of the dialogue in The Beach is modelled on An Artist of the Floating World), and he often appears to be emulating Ishiguro’s trick of exposing his narrators despite themselves. Garland’s story seems to be making a moral, even conservative point about the effects of too many war movies: the freer the rein Richard gives to his Nam and Nintendo-cluttered imagination, the more brutal and unpredictable his behaviour becomes.
Richard’s oddness is shown to be increasing in occasional incidents separated by many pages of well-paced but straight-forward narration of life on the beach. He and his friends accommodate themselves to the loose hierarchy of the travellers’ community, which was founded six years before by the dead Daffy Duck and two surviving friends. The beach is indeed completely unspoiled, and completely isolated from ‘the World’, as Richard comes to think of everywhere else, partly thanks to the armed Thai guards who patrol the cannabis plantation on the other side of the island. But apart from the mild discipline with which they fish, build and cultivate, the travellers are vain and uninteresting. Garland has a good ear for the nullity of backpacker conversation. ‘What is it?’ Etienne asks, as Richard exclaims in admiration at his own suntan:
‘Just my tan. I’m getting dark.’
Etienne nodded, tugging absently at his necklace. ‘I thought maybe you were thinking of this place.’
‘You said “wow”, so I thought you were thinking how good it is here.’
There is suspense as well, indeed for much of its length The Beach is simply an efficient and rather traditional story about young people having adventures in an exotic setting. Will Richard and his two friends make it to the beach past the men guarding the marijuana? Will he escape from the tunnels of a water-filled cave? Will other travellers find the beach and jeopardise its secrecy? On an expedition to a nearby tourist island to buy rice for the camp, Richard is self-righteously disgusted by the loudness and sloppiness of those who inhabit ‘the World’. Then, just before sailing back, he comes across the body of a recently dead junkie, lying beside his sleeping girlfriend. In order to save her from the shock of finding him, as he rationalises it, he moves the body and buries it in a shallow grave.
So the nastiness begins, and it proceeds not with the acceleration of a thriller but episodically and unevenly. To his delight, Richard is given responsibility for patrolling the island and keeping an eye on the cannabis guards, which allows him to indulge to the full his Vietnam fantasies. He has violent and hallucinatory daydreams about the dead Daffy Duck. A series of disasters overtakes the travellers, beginning with an outbreak of food poisoning and culminating in deadly violence and finally in escape from the island.
Richard’s increasingly casual attitude to death, including his own, is the principal development in his character. Observing his friends’ reactions to ‘death’ at the end of a video game, he says that this ‘provides a rare insight into the way people react just before they really do die’. Staring down a gun barrel, it dawns on him that he is going to die before his friends. ‘If I had to get shot, then tenth, eleventh, twelfth – fine. But first. I couldn’t believe it. I’d miss out on everything.’ Unnoticed by the characters, images of real war flicker in the margins of the story. During one of their dream meetings, Daffy Duck shows Richard the famous photograph of the naked Vietnamese girl fleeing the napalmed village. ‘You can see everything!’ Daffy Duck burbles, resolutely missing the point, ‘All her bits.’ Watching Schindler’s List, Richard’s attention is drawn to the young girl in the red coat who is first seen in the ghetto, and later heaped onto a pile of black and white corpses. The significance of the moment is lost on Richard and his companion, who are characteristically preoccupied with the technique by which the red coat was created. ‘Do you reckon they painted it on the film with a brush?’ … ‘No way. They would have done it with a computer, like Jurassic Park.’
Moments like this one remain marginal: the narrator and the book itself are both too deeply in love with war films and boyish thrills to offer a coherent commentary on their effects and the end is especially perfunctory and unsatisfying. Richard survives, as cocky and fantasy-prone as ever (‘I carry a lot of scars,’ he boasts in the closing lines. ‘I like the way that sounds’), as do several of his friends, although we scarcely care about them. Even the inevitable hommage to Conrad is told in the form of a joke about Richard’s unbookishness cracked during one of his hallucinatory encounters with Daffy Duck.
He stared with a slightly baffled, innocent expression, then chuckled …
‘The horror,’ he said.
He sighed, and with a quick movement, twisted out of my grip. ‘The horror,’ he said a final time, ducked through the doorway and was gone.
Despite superficial similarities, The Beach has none of the moral despair of Heart of Darkness. As a jungle adventure, it has as much in common with Willard Price as William Golding, a sophisticated adolescent book in which it is sometimes difficult to distinguish Richard’s callowness and blind spots from those of his creator. Most striking is the absence of any sexual intrigue among the travellers, apart from Richard’s inconclusive crush on Françoise. Danny Boyle and Leonardo DiCaprio will quickly put this right.
Garland’s new novel, The Tesseract, is also set in tropical Asia, concerns violence and death, and features an Englishman who runs amok, but in other respects it is a much more satisfying work. Like The Beach, it begins in a recognisable cinematic mode, that of the gangster thriller. A young and very nervous British sailor named Sean finds himself in a menacingly decrepit hotel in Manila, with an appointment to keep. He is waiting for Don Pepé, the scion of an old plantation family, and the boss of a fleet of pirates. Sean’s job is to negotiate a price for his ship’s safe passage through the South China Sea, but he is overtaken by rising paranoia about the heat, the city and the hotel, in whose seediness he imagines an awful history of torture and assassination. Sean becomes mistakenly convinced that his death is imminent, and when Don Pepé and his men arrive, he fires, triggering a shoot-out and chase through the slums of Manila. The first few pages are unpromising. Garland has shed Richard’s cocky fluency for a third-person narrative which attempts to be hard-boiled but stumbles through some wooden writing (‘Everything weird was the bottom line,’ we are told at one point, ‘and Sean had reached it quickly’). But, fifty pages in, the book lifts off.
The encounter between the paranoid sailor and the gangsters is the first of three sections which overlap but stand alone for most of their length as intense short stories. The second is about the early years of Rosa, a female doctor, into whose prosperous home in middle-class Manila the fight between Sean and his pursuers randomly spills. The third is about Vincenté and Totoy, two of the city’s homeless street boys who are also chance witnesses to the violence. Certain small details echo, rather inconsequentially, through the three sections: each begins with a reference to colour; a cat, killed by the gangsters, is later discovered by the street boys, who also puncture the tyres on the car driven by Rosa’s husband. But what really unites the stories – in contrast to The Beach – is their profound sense of place.
Richard’s adventures could have taken place anywhere, but The Tesseract is full of enthusiasm for South-East Asia’s most overlooked country. Garland’s knowledge of the Philippines is deployed unselfconsciously, at its simplest level in observations about the look and feel of Manila – the oppressive heat which turns a sea breeze into ‘an executive bathroom hand-drier blowing down his neck’ and the jeepneys, the ornate public minibuses which cruise the streets ‘like miniature mobile night-clubs’. There is casual use of history, too: the glories of Spanish colonial history are boastfully trotted out by Don Pepé, a symptom of his insecurity about his mestizo status (he has never married for fear of diluting even further his Spanish blood). The most absorbing parts of this book are about the ordinary life of the Philippines and its people, who come off the page with greater depth than the young Westerners in The Beach.
Unexpectedly, in a writer celebrated for his thrillerish cool, the most successful section is the middle one, an intriguingly tense and suggestive story with the homeliest of settings. Rosa, the doctor into whose peaceful life violence unexpectedly lurches, grew up in Barrio Sarap, an insignificant village of fishermen and foresters in eastern Luzon, ‘as unlike Manila as a shark was to a milkfish’. Apart from the occasional fishing accident, the only source of excitement in the village is the pairing off of its young people, a process on which the 16-year-old Rosa (the past of Barrio Sarap and the present of Manila are neatly alternated) is about to embark. By the chaste codes of the barrio, a girl can sleep with a boy only after they have decided to marry. But Lito, the partner chosen by Rosa, has a problem, a most striking and unusual deformity:
Lito’s right pectoral muscle existed, and his left one did not. It was absent. With only a thin covering of skin, his rib cage was visible all the way up his chest, until it dipped beneath his collar bone … ‘You look like a bar of chocolate,’ she said eventually. ‘A bar someone took a bite out of. Your ribs are the teeth marks.’
The deformity, which has been passed down to Lito from his father and grandfather, horrifies Rosa’s mother, who exiles her to the house of a wealthy relative in Manila, thus indirectly opening up for her a life as a middle-class doctor rather than as the wife of a fisherman. On her father’s death, nine years later, she returns with her husband and two young children to the village, where Lito still lives. Miserably unable to accept their separation, he takes his revenge by inflicting on Rosa’s baby son the same kind of deformity which he himself has had to bear.
Similar macabre and unexpected details crop up throughout the book, for no obvious reason other than to intrigue and to bind and unify the narrative’s diverse threads. The two young lovers first meet when Lito points out to Rosa another deformity, a fish fry with two tails attached to a single body. In the first section, Don Pepé’s driver remembers an act of extreme cruelty perpetrated by the mestizo’s father, who punished one of his plantation workers by forcing him to amputate his own hands. The book is full of mutations, mutilations and physical incapacities which echo eerily through the narrative, raising the themes of fate, heredity and death.
In the third section these concerns crystallise in the character of Alfredo, a wealthy young Filipino anthropologist who is studying the lives of the street children by recording their dreams. He is also a reader of popular science books, and his awed thoughts about the size and impersonal complexity of the universe are familiar from other works of fiction post-Stephen Hawking – Martin Amis’s Night Train, for example. ‘Imagine an atom of hydrogen,’ Alfredo says. ‘Then imagine that you have enlarged the nucleus by five million million, bringing it up to about the size of a one peso coin. To scale, the electron would now be nearly one kilometre away.’ This rather elementary physics is given edge by a painful fact, which is hinted at obliquely: for reasons never fully understood, Alfredo’s young wife jumped or fell to her death from the balcony of his 30th-floor apartment. ‘With all that space, with all that void and room to move around,’ he thinks bitterly, ‘you might hope that the girl’s atoms and the atoms of the pavement might conspire to let her safely through.’ Just as Alfredo wishes desperately to believe in his wife’s survival, so the abandoned Vincenté is similarly tormented with the fate of his missing father.
There are various ways of understanding death, all of them unsatisfactory. There is the Christian belief in judgment, damnation and salvation, explained to the boys by a charitable priest. There is the atheistic cosmology of Alfredo’s science books. And there is folklore and magic, embodied in the recurrent figure of Black Dog, a supernatural creature of violence and death who stalks and devours sleeping children. But in the book’s final pages, as the real Black Dog – the violent chase closing in on Rosa’s family – reaches its climax, Alfredo uses science to present his own, oddly reassuring model of the infinite: the tesseract, a three-dimensional rendering of a four-dimensional shape, a geometric fancy expressing the impossibility of final understanding. Man can apprehend a four-dimensional ‘hypercube’ only in simplified form, in three dimensions. ‘We can see the thing unravelled,’ Alfredo says, speaking as much of his own bereavement as of the tesseract, ‘but not the thing itself.’ Garland snatches from scenes of bloodshed and deprivation an intellectual happy ending: the consoling power, not of belief, but of honest agnosticism. ‘Maybe there is no means to understand,’ concludes Vincenté. ‘This means something.’