A Critical Look Back at The Beach

by Kenneth Champeon, Apr 21, 2003 | Destinations: Thailand / Ko Samui

In recent times, Alex Garland's book The Beach, and the movie inspired by it, have probably drawn more attention to Thailand's islands than any other work, barring the Lonely Planet guide and its offspring. Hordes traveled to experience the islands' mystique firsthand, or else to glimpse heartthrob and Beach star Leonardo DiCaprio, frolicking in turquoise seas during the movie's filming.

This is a great irony, as one of the book's themes is the spoiling of Thailand's islands by the very tourism spawned by guidebooks -- and Garland's book. Says one of The Beach's Eden-seekers, Jed: "One of these days I'm going to find one of those Lonely Planet writers and I'm going to ask him, what's so...lonely about the Khao San Road?"

Although a few years have passed since the publication of the book, it is still among the most popular in Thailand's English-language bookstores. The film appears regularly in Thailand's tourist movie-cafes. The question is why? And what message do the book and the movie transmit about Thailand?

The Beach is a good book - a quick, compelling read. It is not a great book. It was obviously written almost as quickly as it can be read, and is full of pace-quickening redundancies like: "Aside from that one moment, Sal made no other signs. She didn't interrupt me, frown, smile, nod. She just sat in her lotus position, motionless, and listened." Much of The Beach is like this: like a fast succession of similar movie-frames. It is a movie-book: inspired by Hollywood, and arguably written for it.

The Beach may be a cult classic, it is not a cult classic on par with, say, Under the Volcano. Its appeal is limited to tourists and travelers of both the normal and the armchair species. And the book's chief theme -- "paradise comes at a price," as the book's back cover adeptly alliterates -- is hardly novel. It is only a small variation on the theme of The Lord of the Flies, itself a variation on a theme of the Book of Genesis. Marketers of The Beach have labeled it "set in Thailand", and this partially explains its popularity in Thailand. But is not really set in Thailand. Rather, it is set in a bubble, populated almost exclusively by Westerners, who only occasionally, and never credibly, make contact with Thai people. The few Thais in The Beach are stereotypes: the transvestite, the pervert, the sneering drug-runner, the incompetent cop - Hollywood characters with specious Thai traits.

More irritating than the stereotypes is Garland's attempts to render spoken Thai, and - presumably - its elision and modification of final consonants, as in this snippet of dialogue: 'Daffy Duck is a cartoon character.' 'Ca'oon?' 'Yes.' 'Mis'er Duck is ca'oon?'

The apostrophes are not just tiresome -- they are wrong. Throughout the book, Thaiglish is mauled and misrepresented; the Thais end up sounding like the slave Jim from Huckleberry Finn. (For the record, Thais say "cahtoon," just like Englishmen.) And the only word of real Thai in the whole book is "farang" - foreigner.

This mockery of Thaiglish would be forgivable if the Westerners' speech were treated in the same way. At one point Garland writes of an Italian, "He'd say things like 'Donta pausa on thata platforma.' (I'm abandoning the Italian accent from now on. You'll just have to imagine it.)" He doesn't abandon the Thai accent -- "Bu' why you wan' do tha'?" -- nor does he attempt an English or a Scottish accent, as deserving of apostrophes as any.

Were it not for a few place-names - Ko Pha Ngan, Ko Samui, Surat Thani - The Beach could no more claim to be set in Thailand than in Palm Springs. The author either has only a superficial knowledge of the country, or has deliberately put his narrator into blinders and given him a bad ear. The Thais and their country are merely used to create an element of mystery and danger. Because, as we all know, Thais are mysterious and dangerous.

Thus, in many ways a very post-modern book - with its acerbic irony and its frequent references to popular culture -- The Beach is also a very old-fashioned one. True to postmodern form, it resurrects Kurtz's ambiguous pronouncement -- "the horror" - from Apocalypse Now. But true to a more colonial-era literature, it propounds a view of the tropics worthy of Heart of Darkness.

This view in brief: If a group of civilized Westerners tries to live in a tropical land, or simulate the life of a tropical people, the group will invariably become exotic and savage. They will learn to enjoy spearing fish, and then they will try to spear each other, as they do in The Beach's finale.

This further explains the popularity of the book. It subtly appeals to a bigotry that is unfashionable to profess. Westerners form the world's main story, with the Thais acting as sinister papier-mache palm trees. The Beach is of tourists, by a tourist, and for tourists. About Thailand it says close to nothing, and what it says is mostly wrong.

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Available at Amazon.com: the book, the DVD.

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