Sometimes a book becomes so impossibly huge that the author runs in the opposite direction. The Beach is one of those books. Alex Garland is one of those authors. I remember seeing his debut in Borders, the Glesga branch I spent most of my college years hanging about in. Oh, you could lose yourself in there for hours. There were posters of a half-face, one bright blue eyes, a box with a name in it (very nineties), and sand in the background. Also, the title. Only two words. The and Beach.
It already sounded ominous, which appealed to me. But I already knew about The Beach. Everyone did. It captured the zeitgeist in a way that rarely happens, aligning itself into a post-Trainspotting period of the ’90s. The Beach was cool and if you read it, you were cool too. Obviously, I bought it. My reading at that point consisted of a diet of Point Horror, Stephen King, Doctor Who New Adventures, Irvine Welsh, Kathy Acker, and lots of Batman. At school, I was reading DH Lawrence’s Women In Love, which I hated. Docherty by William McIllvaney gave me something to really grab hold of. But it was The Beach that gave me a glimpse of something new and exciting, something…murky and nasty.
The plot is simple but takes the main character, our narrator, to a beach he finds on a map given to him by a man named Daffy. A man who kills himself soon afterwards. The beach of the title is a nirvana away from the world, which holds a society free of the mind-numbing tedium of office life, a idyllic place of peace with no corruption. Except it’s just as bad as everywhere else, just sunnier. Oh, and there’s a drug plantation on the other side of the island. Suddenly, it all seems less appealing, eh?
I read this book with a song in the background. For me, the soundtrack to The Beach isn’t Pure Shores (which came out with the movie), but in fact Tattva by Kula Shaker, specifically The Lucky 13 Remix. Whenever I pass my copy of this book, sitting on my shelf next to the stairs in my hall, I almost hear a quivering undulating sound of a sitar and Crispin Mills singing like the flower and the scent of summer/like the sun and shine… I often end up with unofficial soundtracks to books. Not everyone can read with music, but for me it often blocks out the screaming from next door. They fight a lot.
The Beach ended up being my favourite book of 1996. I re-read it during the first lockdown, in the midst of that heatwave. I’d forgotten how much everything has changed since the ’90s. Google Maps didn’t exist back then and couldn’t destroy the plot before it got going. One character plays his Gameboy a lot. I don’t think this book could work now unless it was set in the ’90s. But that’s partly why I love it so much. Oh, it gets darker as the sun gets brighter. Not everyone comes out of this story with their head held high. Actually, not all of them make it out alive.
Years later, Alex Garland popped up on my horizon again. He’d written other books but somehow made a point of staying away from his previous ubiquity. It was during Dredd, the film based on the character from 2000AD (which I still have delivered every week), that I recognised his name. It wasn’t a surprise, after all Alex had written many hit sci-fi films. Later, I heard he also practically directed Dredd. What a genius. Dredd is amazing. In a way, I’d love to see The Beach directed by Alex. Not that the film was bad, but it wasn’t great. Danny Boyle always has something interesting to say, but…his film lacked something. Maybe it felt too big budget? In theory, it should have been a perfect blending of brilliant minds. Anyway, that doesn’t take away from the book, even if the book takes away from the film.
Alex Garland wrote a classic for his debut novel and took a left turn in a different direction. Sometimes, I think about what might have been had he followed The Beach up with another Generation X hit. But then, that’s too obvious. Running in the opposite direction sometimes takes you to the place you were always meant to be, even if you’re expected somewhere else.