Book #24. The Beach. By Alex Garland.

Be careful what you wish for. It might make you temporarily insane.

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I knew, ever since Yun and I began to plan our Southeast Asia trip, that I had to read this book.

Mention The Beach within a circle of travelers and you will probably see heads nod and eyes gleam. As far as I know, it’s the only famous backpacker novel in existence. Apparently Leonardo Di Caprio starred in a decent film version but I didn’t want to spoil the plot by watching the movie first. And boy am I glad I didn’t. You could say this book is the literary equivalent of a gourmet burger: exciting to plow through, but you’ve got to be sure to pace yourself, because when it’s gone, it’s gone.

The star of the plot is Richard, a roguish lone traveller who you could say is sort of a Gen X version of Humphrey Bogart. Richard sets out for an adventure in Bangkok but is soon bored by his touristic surroundings. That changes quickly when he ends up rooming next to a crazy guy who calls himself Daffy Duck. Daffy commits a gruesome suicide soon afterwards, but not before leaving Richard a handwritten map to a secret, unspoiled island. An opportunistic young French couple wants in on the action, and soon the three are paddling off in search of the alleged tourist-free Shangri La.

A duller and more literary book would have Daffy’s mysterious island tantalizingly out of reach and not quite real. But in The Beach it’s real. So real that cannabis farmers living on one side of it almost cross paths with Richard and his friends and the three barely escape with their lives. Only after stumbling along a bit further do they discover an incredible colony of like-minded expats, living in blissful and tropical self-exile.

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Although The Beach is supposed to be on an unnamed island in Thailand, there’s a well-founded rumor that Alex Garland drew his inspiration from an island in the Bacuit Archipelago, Philippines…  Possibly this one?

Sal, the enigmatic leader of the colony, welcomes the three newcomers and gives them tasks to earn their keep. Their fellow islanders seem more or less ready to welcome them in and life unfolds at a paradisiacal slow pace as everyone helps out with fishing, cooking, farming and building. But nothing is too perfect to fail.  In the case of the island (and its equally paradisiacal beach) things can actually go bad. Quite bad.

The Beach is like a psychedelic mixture of Lord of the Flies and Heart of Darkness with an extra shot of adrenaline but still enough ideas for a book discussion.  Is it a cautionary tale for those who are too eager to chase extreme forms of adventure? Is it simply an imaginative thriller? A bit of both? Certainly the narrative is deft and the writing is smart, in spite of a few plot holes and over the top scenarios – but isn’t that part of the fun?

Richard is an ideal narrator in many ways because he does not distract the reader with too many moral observations about himself or about those around him – you could say he is a truly reliable narrator. He is openly flawed, matter-of-fact, selfish, bored and honest:

Collecting memories, or experiences, was my primary goal when I first started traveling. I went about it in the same way as a stamp collector goes about collecting stamps, carrying around with me a mental list of all the things I had yet to see or do. Most of the list was pretty banal. I wanted to see the Taj Mahal, Borobudur, the Rice Terraces in Banave, Angkor Wat. Less banal, or maybe more so, was that I wanted to witness extreme poverty. I saw it as a necessary experience for anyone who wanted to appear worldly and interesting.  

Sound familiar? Many people whose weakness is travel may recognize these aspirations. I almost winced, like a mirror had been held up. Can even travel become…banal? With the wrong attitude, there’s no doubt about it. That’s why adventure junkies like Richard are perfectly primed for the self-destruction that lies behind a travel destination that is too good to be true. That’s not to say you need to be a backpacker or travel junkie to appreciate The Beach. It’s fast-paced, funny, lush, full of lurid yet likeable characters and it ends the way it should. Ideally it should be read in a gently swaying hammock overlooking a pristine a propos shoreline in the middle of the day. If you have no choice except to read it at night, though, you just may want to consider a nightlight.   The Beach is certainly entertaining, but it doesn’t shy away from the darker side of human nature. 

Book #4. The Long Goodbye. By Raymond Chandler

“The French have a phrase for it. The bastards have a phrase for everything and they are always right.

To say goodbye is to die a little.”

Or so says the unforgettable cynic and private eye Philip Marlowe, in a rare sentimental moment in a novel that is otherwise the least sentimental novel I may have ever read.

I have my cousin Lisa to thank for introducing me to Raymond Chandler – or rather, Philip Marlowe (the two are still the same person in my mind). This is one of those novels I probably would never have read otherwise. For whatever reason I balked at the premise of a moody, cigarette-smoking quasi-playboy private detective trying to solve a case about a beautiful woman who’s been murdered. Looking at that sentence I just typed I know it sounds crazy I thought that. Perhaps the story just sounded cheesy. Maybe (gasp) not quite literary enough for my “taste.”

But I put my normal prejudices aside and dived into a world that I have absolutely nothing in common with aside from the fact that it’s set in west coast America and I totally fell in love. I think the sign of a great author, actually, is that he or she can create a world the reader may not “relate” to and yet can still feel a strong connection to it. There is no world or reality apart from the world of Philip Marlowe when you are reading this novel. Whether you’re comfortable in it or not, you are sitting in the front passenger seat for the entire ride.

Philip Marlowe, for all his self-destructive habits and cynicism, is a reliable protagonist. You love him partly because everyone else is suspect. At the very beginning of the story, he encounters the only other truly sympathetic character, Terry Lennox. Here is the opening paragraph:

The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls Royce Silver Wraith outside the entrance of the Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open because Terry Lennox’s left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one. He had a young-looking face but his hair was bone white. You could tell by his eyes that he was plastered to the hairline, but otherwise he looked like any other nice young guy in a dinner jacket who had been spending too much money in a joint that exists for that purpose and for no other.

 While this may be the first time Marlowe sees Terry, there aren’t too many more times to follow. Marlowe has just begun to establish a friendship with him when Terry’s wife – the daughter of a multimillionaire – is murdered brutally in a guesthouse on her property. Yikes. Marlowe helps Terry make a getaway to Mexico where he ends up committing suicide and leaves a note confessing he was the murderer. The rest of the world is convinced, but Marlowe suspects Terry was the convenient scapegoat in an affair that is much more sinister than it even first appears.

For the sake of justice on Terry’s behalf – even though he only actually utters the word “justice” a handful of times throughout the book – Marlowe fights an uphill battle against corrupt cops, gangsters and the victim’s rich and powerful father to get the scoop on what really happened. At the same time he finds himself enlisted in another case searching for an MIA famous author who is prone to drunken rage. Events and people all become inevitably linked to each other as they only can in a fictional and sensational world of crime caper but it’s so well done that you don’t question it. There are no gaps, no pot holes in the plot, and all things come full circle to a glorious, if somewhat bittersweet ending. (Hint: it is called “The Long Goodbye”).

Throughout the ride we are entertained on every page by the cynical Marlowe and his characteristic zingers. At times he is endearingly self-deprecatory:

I belonged in Idle Valley like a pearl onion on a banana split.

 When he’s talking back to thugs he fights fire with fire:

“See you around,” the bodyguard told me coolly. “The name’s Chick Agostino. I guess you’ll know me.”

 “Like a dirty newspaper,” I said. “Remind me not to step on your face.”

 Or sometimes he’s just sitting at home watching TV, bemoaning the banality in the culture all around him:

“The dialogue was stuff even Monogram wouldn’t have used…And the commercials would have sickened a goat raised on barbed wire and broken beer bottles.”

These are more superficial examples from a larger-than-life character who has practically created a stereotype and a genre of his own. Marlowe, however, is more than just quick on his feet. He is a closeted intellectual. On the one hand, he describes a side character in the publishing business as “a guy who talked with commas, like a heavy novel.” This is in keeping with Marlowe’s own straight talking tell-it-like-it-is. It’s the way the other characters see him too.

Mainly to the reader, though, Marlowe makes references to literary figures ranging from Flaubert to T.S Eliot. He knows his cultural stuff, at least on a basic level, but he isn’t a prig. On one occasion a rich man’s chauffeur quotes two lines from a T.S Eliot poem. The poem goes: “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michael Angelo.” He asks Marlowe what he thinks it means. Marlowe’s sardonic response: “It suggests to me that the guy didn’t know very much about women.”

The Marlowe that the reader – and only the reader – gets to see is both weary and introspective. His intellectual side is such that he knows and understands himself (and other people) all too well, even if they are too selfish and self-destructive to understand him. Marlowe is not simply resigned to this fact – he likes the life that he’s chosen, in spite of its disappointments:

…Part of me wanted to get out and stay out, but this was the part I never listened to. Because if I ever had I would have stayed in the town where I was born and worked in the hardware store and married the boss’s daughter and had five kids…I might even have got rich – small-town rich, an eight-room house, two cars in the garage, chicken every Sunday and the Reader’s Digest on the living room table, the wife with a cast-iron permanent and me with a brain like a sack of Portland cement. You take it, friend. I’ll take the big sordid dirty crooked city.

 Sordid and dirty as it is, I’m already longing to return to Marlowe’s world. In his strange sort of self-aware way he is the purest thing in it, he’s but tough as nails at the same time. You know in the end everything’s going to be okay because he’s at the helm. And sometimes that’s all you really need in order to enjoy the wild and crazy ride.