Wednesday, October 14, 2015

What I Read: The Beach

This week's post was a toss-up between The Beach and Never Alone. Even though I finished Never Alone first, The Beach is probably more complex and also I just have a lot more to say about it, so I figured it was better to touch on that first.

As I said on Monday, I read The Beach for my job. Kind of.

I moonlight as an English tutor and one of my teenage students had to read this for his English class. I decided to read it for myself for a couple of reasons. I wanted to see what level of work he gets assigned in class and also to see what kind of cultural touchstones there were in the book that he might not get (a lot, turns out). I also wanted to farm the book for extracts and sentences to use in our tutoring sessions, because examples of how to parse a sentence you don't quite understand go better when you can directly apply them to a task (like, say, the homework reading you have to do.) Finally, I have to admit I wanted to take the piss out of him (a bit). "What do you mean you're not done? I finished it in one day!"

Yeah, actually. I ended up reading The Beach in one day, in three sittings (subway ride home, before dinner, and after dinner).

Image courtesy Penguin

In the trek through my modified TIME Top 100 Novels list, I've found a recurring theme of "white Westerners in foreign countries": Under the Volcano (the British in Mexico), Beneath the Sheltering Sky (Brits and Americans in North Africa), Tropic of Cancer (Americans in France), and The Sun Also Rises (Americans in France/Spain). The Beach continues in this literary tradition of disaffected white people finding themselves in another country, but this time it's in Thailand. For anyone like me who's missed out on this book in the 20 (!!) years since its publication:

Backpacking English guy (Richard) is in Thailand, where a strung-out hostel guest shares a map with him that's supposed to be like the Platonic Ideal of backpacking destinations. Guest then kills himself. Rchard and a French couple (Etienne and Francoise) find the island and live for a while in a tropical utopia. Spoiler alert: things eventually go to shit and Richard, Etienne, Francoise, and a couple of Richard's new utopia friends flee for their lives.

If there is something to be argued about how problematic it is to frame a foreign country as nothing more than an exotic backdrop and "epiphany playground" for the protagonists, especially a foreign country that exists in an unequal power relationship with the author's/protagonist's nation of origin, then that argument is maybe more fairly leveled at The Beach than anything else I've read so far.

I guess all of those postcolonial lit discussions I have with people have permanently ruined some books for me! But that's okay, I don't know how much I would have liked The Beach  anyway.

"So, you guys, did you ever hear of this book, The Lord of the Flies? Amazing stuff."

That is what I imagine Garland's book conversations go. I should have lowered my expectations as soon as I read the blurb from Mail on Sundayon the back of the book:

Lord of the Flies and The Magus lurk at the roots of this novel...

I hate Lord of the Flies. I hate its obvious and moralizing little Aesop structure and clunky symbolism, but most of all I hate its fucking pessimism. I do not for a second believe that the chaotic Hobbesian "state of nature" is what lurks in most people's innermost hearts. If that makes me naive, then so be it.

It isn't just Garland's dim view of humanity that grates on me. The Internet says that Garland drew on his own backpacking experience and it seems, in places, like he's trying to rag on backpacker snobbery and hipsterism. People are always talking about how this place used to be great but now is full of tourists, it's really this other place that's the next big thing. I'm all for ragging on hipsters, but when it's coming from someone who sets a book in Thailand and then makes it exclusively about white (bar Keaty) Westerners it smacks a little of...cluelessness, I guess.

It feels weird to say this about something that's only 20 years old, but I wonder if there were some things in The Beach that were a product of its time. I don't mean the clunky references to Keaty's GameBoy as "the Nintendo," either. I mean that there are a couple scenes that don't really serve any narrative or character-developing purpose and today read as....let's say, "problematic" with respect to stereotypes about Thai sexuality and Thai masculinity. There only two, but they are crammed right in the beginning of the book (when Richard and his friends are still in Thailand proper). One gets the feeling that if the book took place exclusively in Thailand, there were would have been a lot more where these came from:

1. Right in the beginning, Richard and Etienne are walking down the big backpacker road together. Richard ends up being accosted by, well, a creepy local:

A brown hand flashed out and caught hold of me. A Thai trader sitting by his stall, a slim man with acne scars, was gripping my arm. I looked towards Etienne. He hadn't seen, was still walking down the road. I lost him behind bobbing heads and tanned necks. 
The man began stroking my forearm with his free hand, smoothly and swiftly, not loosening his grip. I frowned and he tried to pull away. He pulled me back, taking my hand towards his thigh. My fingers clenched to a fist and my knuckles pressed against his skin. People pushed past me on the pavement, knocking me with their shoulders. One caught my eye and smiled. The man stopped stroking my arm and started stroking my leg.  
I looked at him. His face was passive and unreadable and his gaze was levelled at my waist. He gave my leg a final caress, turning his wrist so his thumb slipped briefly under the material of my shorts. Then he released my arm, patted me on the behind, and turned back to his stall.

2. Only a few pages later we have this:
Thais, or South-East Asians in general, make eerily convincing transvestites. Their slight build and smooth faces are a recipe for success. 
I saw a particularly stunning transvestite as I waited under the palm tree. His silicone breasts were perfectly formed and he had hips to die for. The only thing to betray his gender was his gold lame dress—a bit too showy to be worn by a Thai girl on a stroll down Chaweng. 
He was carrying a backgammon set under his arm, and as he slunk past he asked if I wanted to play a game. 
"No thanks," I replied with neurotic haste. 
"Why?" he wanted to know. "I think maybe you afrai' I win." 
I nodded. 
"OK. Maybe you wan' play in bed?" He tugged at the long slit up the side of his dress, revealing fabulous legs. "Maybe in bed I le' you win..." 
"No thanks," I said again, blushing slightly. 
He shrugged and continued walking along the beach. A couple of beach huts down someone took him up on the backgammon offer. Curious, I tried to see who, but they were blocked by the trunk of a leaning coconut tree. A few minutes later I looked back and he was gone. I guessed he'd found his punter. 
Etienne appeared not long after, beaming. 
"Hey, Richard," he said. "Did you see the girl walking this way?" 
"With a lame dress?" 
"Yes! My God, she was so beautiful!"
Neither of these scenes are essential to the plot. My guess is that they're included as set pieces to make the setting seem really, really Thai. Which is kind of necessary, since for much of the book we just have a bunch of white people talking to each other in a lush tropical paradise that is technically Thailand but has nothing at all to do with Thailand. Maybe Garland is hoping if that he lays it on thick at the beginning, it'll be enough to tide you over for the rest of the book.

I won't dissect everything in these selections that bother me but I'll list them here: the "creepy homosexual" trope, the reduction of ladyboys/kathoey to pure camp (and then, later, punchline, as the bit where Etienne thinks the kathoey is a ciswoman is presumably supposed to be funny), the stereotype of Asian men as impotent and/or effeminate, and finally the way Garland writes out Thai accents.

How to write dialects and accents is an ongoing debate among writers from amateur to professional. I think the agreed-upon standard is: write the words that people say, not how they say them. Accents can be described outside of speech. One gets wiggle room according to one's own ethnic and cultural background, I think, but that is the standard for white people writing POC.

What's weird is, Garland actually does exactly this later on in the book (I think with Unhygeinix, the chef, but I could be wrong): he says right out front that the character has an accent but he can't be bothered to write it out, so he describes about how it sounds and then the character speaks "neutrally" for the rest of the book. But he can't do that with the Thai characters? Because they all speak in that same "Maybe you wan' play in bed?" voice: the gold lame ladyboy, the cop investigating the death at the hostel, the weed plantation owners at the end of the book. It's hard not to see the Thai dialogue and the way it's written as something of a choice.

Shit like that just bugs me. You could argue that Garland is trying to characterize Richard through this (since Richard breaks the fourth wall and states, directly, that he's writing down this story about a crazy beach he lived at for a while). I don't buy it, though, because there's nothing in the book that seems that subversive or ironic.

What else annoyed me? Hm:

The women characters in this book were essentially sexy lamps. Francoise was a sexy lamp that Richard obsessed over; Sal was another sexy lamp (the only description she gets is basically having large breasts) that Richard hates; and then there were maybe or two other women? Who barely had names?

Richard suffered from Inexplicable Speshul Snoflaek Syndrome. The psychotic, soon-to-be-dead "Daffy Duck" singles Richard out for no apparent reason and gives him the map to the beach, kickstarting the whole adventure. Up until the end, Sal likes Richard for no apparent reason ("because he reminds her of Daffy Duck," the book tells us, but we never get a clear picture of what exactly he was like). We see Richard sexually harassed and propositioned by Thai men, while the other white male characters we meet are completely ignored.

It's too bad because there were some interesting ideas, like Richard treating the beach and assorted tasks like a game, or like a war movie reenactment. If I'm allowed to reach for a moment, I would say it was a great metaphor for the way that a lot of backpackers see the countries they're in: as a game, as escapism, as something entirely divorced from reality, as something for their own entertainment where they're the hero. Given everything else in here, I would say that metaphor is entirely accidental.

What was also probably accidental was the way that everyone on the beach pretended as though they were separate from the World (as they call it), not reliant on the World, even as they were actually dependent on the World for a whole lot. Without the rice from Rice Runs they would starve; without batteries they would lose some of their favorite hobbies (Keaty's GameBoy and some unnamed people's Walkmans); without pilfering from the nearby marijuana plantation (grown and maintained by Thais) they'd have no entertainment. Everyone except Sal smokes a lot of ganja and that seems to be the only thing to do for fun, aside a weekly soccer match. If any one of these links to "the World" were to vanish, things would get pretty awful pretty quickly. But no one ever seems to acknowledge this. There seems also to be an extended metaphor that applies to the worst kind of insular foreign language instructor communities (the communities I know best are the NEST communities: Native English Speaker Teacher, but there are others): rely and even exploit the local economy/community for what you need, but do your best to pretend like it isn't there and spend your time and energy getting to know other foreigners. I saw it happen and, to an unfortunate extent, I was part of it as well. (That's a post for another day, though.)

The writing, too, was fluid and crisp, even if Garland's ideas were sometimes stupid. I wouldn't have been able to read it in one day if the writing were bad. It's good. But because the writing was good, I really wanted the ideas to be better. But as it stands, The Beach is a very White Dude book. I have zero interest in reading of Garland's other work.


  1. [insert white dude gif here]

    Now you need to watch the movie and compare! It has Tilda Swinton. Swoon~

    1. The question is, does Leo do the "cheers" thing he does in apparently EVERY movie??? THIS IS WHAT MATTERS