'For a cult youth novel, Alex Garland's The Beach is extremely critical of youth culture.' Discuss. (1500-2000 words.)
As his narrator, Garland offers us Richard, a less than balanced individual, in possession of a tenuous grip upon reality. He is arrogant and reckless, often believing himself to have nothing left to learn ("Fucking New Guy? ... New to what?" p87) and convinced of his own immortality ("Yea, though I walk through the valley of death I will fear no evil, for I am the evilest motherfucker in the valley" p87) The beach is supposed to represent the highest level of escape attainable, but can only be from the outset a disappointment, because it is already built up in his mind into something unobtainable; "It's silly really. I think I was expecting an . . . ideology or something. A purpose." p96
Richard being the narrative voice, one can logically infer that it is his perspective which is intended by Garland to be representative of the youth culture depicted. My first impression is that the very fact that Richard commits his story to text is indicative of a desperate need for recognition, and his style of narration suggests that its writing is not likely to be meant as a catharsis. As a character, he is shallow and self-glorifying beyond the point to which readers might sympathise with his reckless actions:
p163 "Collecting ... experiences was my primary goal when I first started travelling. I went about it in the same way as a stamp-collector goes about collecting stamps ... Then I had to graduate to the more obscure stuff. Being in a riot was something I pursued with a truly obsessive zeal, along with being tear-gassed and hearing gunshots fired in anger."
The cultural phenomenon of travelling, as distinct from tourism, is one reserved for domination almost exclusively by youth. In Richard's mind, as in others, it becomes the acquisition of experiences with only slight moral differentiation between them, merely a reinforcement in the mind of the collector of their own broadening life perspective; a form of validation which, whilst owing nothing to established mainstream cultural value systems, replaces these with a generation-created classification hierarchy which is just as strict.
Established value systems provide the catalyst for tensions within the group, which emerge at the earliest stages immediately upon Richard's arrival: "There's only five people with Walkmans in the camp, and I've refused all of them batteries in the past."/"Oh... then we're fucked" p142 Many of Garland's characters are selfish; Françoise does not want to share the as yet unfound beach with Zeph and Sammy; Keaty is jealous of those on the more exciting fishing detail. Whilst the characters are believable for these traits, they offer a less than glowing portrait of the type of greed-ridden society which youth produces. Their culture is possessive not only of material items but also of concepts, craving exclusivity, the possession of power over others and the gratification of ego which extreme situations bring.
Richard is white, middle-class and, importantly, British; yet he seeks to live according to the self-interpreted rules of an intense and destructive state of mind sourced from American post-Vietnam war films. It is a heavily romanticised concept of what was, in reality, a brutal slaughter, Richard's perspective on this being given in his introduction:
"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" (p1)
He is not alone in tapping into the typically acronymic patterns of Marine speech for self-validation, as other residents of the beach greet him in kind; Keaty: "You're one of the three FNGs, huh?" (p111), Jed: "ETAs, FNGs. You're my kinda guy." (p155) None of these characters has the life experience to have used these terms in their original setting—they are all drawn from a youth film culture which glorifies adventure and extreme danger. Dark humour, however ("I always liked M*A*S*H." p185), eclipses the sense of lethality inherent in the danger until it is too late. Richard's self-delusion twists his rationalisation of the situation:
"If you could have had Vietnam and kept the beach, it wouldn't have been Vietnam." (p379) "You not knowing was Vietnam too. Not knowing what was going on, not knowing when to give up, stuck in a struggle that was lost before it started." (p380)
...until finally he realises "I didn't want that Vietnam! ... I didn't want that kind." (p380) Clearly this portrays a youth unable to deal with the consequences of its actions, capable of treating situations far too flippantly because of an inability to realise what those consequences might be. This is not, however, the stereotypical failure of responsibility.
Whilst hedonistic, the Beach cannot be pigeonholed as a novel preoccupied with either sex or drugs, two areas of moral laxity traditionally associated with youth culture. Though sex is occasionally referred to (Étienne & Françoise, p140), and cannabis is a part of everyday life for many beach dwellers, addiction to these is not the issue. An obsession with danger and adrenaline is the destructive passion in Richard's life, representing a culture which strives continually to live on the edge until exhaustion seizes. It is interesting to note that Richard achieves his goal: he does in fact succeed in becoming tired of life ("I didn't want to do anything much. Except maybe sleep. It was the idea of oblivion that appealed." p365), but this is a hollow victory which questions the value of expending ones energies to such a negative pursuit.
The concept of the hideaway island itself is also flawed. It hinges upon a realisation that whilst the touristification of Eden is inevitable, such a nirvana is also simultaneously both attainable and worth attaining for however long is possible. The Beach may therefore be read on a simple level as a tale of hope in the face of adversity. A temporary paradise is given meaning by the travails necessary to attain it, but the youth portrayed by Garland is unwilling to sacrifice too much in order to do so. ("A holiday resort seemed like a poor reward for the difficulties we'd had to overcome" p96.) In this context, the hopes of youth may be seen as an arrogant self-regard which cannot admit that the search of perfect souls such as themselves could go unfulfilled; the young people are the products of a culture which regards instant and overblown gratification as a supreme right.
As a novel, The Beach follows a complex chain of logic which is not immediately obvious. Upon re-reading the text, it becomes evident that Daffy surmises what the arrival of a number of uninvited strangers would mean for the stability of the beach, which he sees as his creation and his responsibility, and sends Richard as an agent of destructive change, to put an end to the inevitably withering paradise before it becomes a shadow of its hopeful beginnings ("Fucking [beach]. We're both as good as ... dead ... Cancer in the corals" p7) Daffy's presumption to act as judge and executioner of a community of which he is a small, albeit founding, part, is another instance of the disregard for the feelings in The Beach also typified by Richard's emotionless euthanasia of Christo. It shows the selfishness of human behaviour when patterns of self-preservation become confused, in Daffy's case by suicidal tendencies, and in Richard's by the alternate reality of the war-game he has engaged himself in.
As an observation: the author of The Beach is thirty, the book first published four year ago. Richard claims to have been born in 1974. This parallel between the ages of the author and his main character is interesting; it suggests that the questions Garland raises about human nature during the course of his novel are as much the interest of the author as any potential reader. Garland, in presenting such a critical picture of a "select" youthful society, is perhaps examining all society for signs of redeeming value, and wishes to offer this debate to a similar "elect"—the audience offered by the cult status guaranteed a work of this nature.
I believe that Étienne reaches the heart of the modern dilemma which Garland presents when he says "If you are bored of Eden, what is left?" p146, to which the author answers through the lack of alternatives: all that is left is apocalypse. Living in the moment is of crucial importance, and Garland offers a modern metaphor through Richard: "It's the split second before Game Over that's my favourite thing ... Some swear or rage ... some scream... [The games tap] into something pure and beyond affectations" (p110) "Personally, I'm a rager." Where age might counsel resigned calm, youth demands perfection, and since this cannot be achieved in anything of any permanence, the search for a personal obliteration of self takes over as a subconscious desire—of which the obsession with 'Nam-related fantasies is a manifestation. Depending upon the perspective of the reader, this anger at the imperfection of the world is either the greatest strength of an idealistic youth, or its greatest failing. The fact that this philosophy is interpreted through the transient (and often violent) world of film culture and video-games, however, would seem to point to a restlessness which is more destructive than anything else.
There are moments of heroism in The Beach. The solidarity shown by Jed, Keaty, Françoise and Étienne in rescuing Richard at the book's climax is evidence that youth culture can produce lasting loyalty between friends. Indeed, this is one of the only positive things which can be taken away from the story—anything else is almost certainly wildly metaphysical. Considering, for example, Richard's familiar argument "that the universe is infinite" (p74) and everything happens somewhere, it is a work of extreme optimism to emerge from such philosophising for any length of time with a conviction that anything we do means anything. That there are any non-suicidal characters can only be seen as positive.
Negatively, at the end of the novel, we must recollect that Richard's tale is supposedly written retrospectively, a fact brought home to us at the end of its telling ("At this exact moment, I'm sitting in front of a word processor ... at this exact moment ... this exact moment" p438); and there still is no sense that there has been any change wrought, since he is as cocky at the end of their telling as at the beginning. "I like the way that sounds. I carry a lot of scars" (p439) Facing down the extremities of experience, and surviving, remains his primary form of validation. This lack of progression makes it problematic to accept Richard as a positive character, and leads me to the conclusion that The Beach ultimately offers an depressing view not only of youth culture, but of our species as a whole. To be fair, though, this is true of most modern novels, not only those labelled as 'cult youth.'
All quotations taken from the set text.