The Beach (novel)
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The Beach (1996) is a travel/backpacking novel by English author Alex Garland. Set in Thailand, it is the story of a young backpacker's search for a legendary, idyllic and isolated beach untouched by tourism, and his time there, in its small, international community of backpackers.
In a cheap hotel on Khao San Road in Bangkok, Richard, a young English traveller, meets a strange Scotsman going by the pseudonym of Daffy Duck who leaves him a hand-drawn map of a supposed hidden beach located in the Gulf of Thailand that is inaccessible to tourists. After receiving the map, Richard discovers that Daffy has committed suicide. Together with a young and beautiful French couple, Étienne and Françoise, the trio sets out to find what they believe must be paradise on earth.
On their way to the beach, Richard gives a copy of the map to Sammy and Zeph, two American Harvard students he meets in Koh Samui. When the three travellers finally reach the beach - after bribing a local boat contractor, taking a long swim, trekking the dense jungle, stumbling across a marijuana plantation and avoiding its heavily armed guards, and eventually jumping down a waterfall - they are faced with a tight-knit and largely self-sufficient community which has almost completely shut itself off from civilization and which has developed a sophisticated hierarchy under the quasi-dictatorial rule of a young American woman called Sal and her South African lover, Bugs, who, along with Daffy, discovered the beach and founded the community there in 1989. The three went under the pseudonyms of Sylvester (modified as "SALvester" and hence, Sal), Bugs (Bugs Bunny) and Daffy (Daffy Duck).
When Richard, Étienne, and Françoise arrive, it is already 1995, six years after the founders discovered the beach. Only a select few are chosen by the original founders to come to the island, and thus newcomers who were not given a personal invitation are not welcome, but are not sent away because to do so would jeopardize the secrecy of the community. Richard, Étienne, and Françoise manage to incorporate themselves into the island community and are quickly accepted because they tell the community about Daffy and his death back on the Thai mainland.
Because the community is largely self-sufficient in terms of food production, supply, and infrastructure, work is very important and there are a number of details, or work rosters, for the garden, fishing, cooking, and carpentry. Along with Françoise and Etienne, Richard becomes a part of the fishing detail. After a few months life becomes very idyllic on the island, with Richard making friends with a few other members of the beach community: Keaty, a fellow Englishman hooked on his Game Boy; Gregorio, a Spanish traveller part of his fishing detail; Unhygienix, the Italian head chef with an intense obsession for bath soap; Jesse and Cassie, two lovers who work in the gardening and carpentry detail, respectively; Ella, who works second-in-command with Unhygenix in the cooking detail; and finally, Jed - the enigmatic loner of the group whose sole separate detail is shrouded in mystery. Richard later discovers that Jed has been assigned by Sal as the island's guardian to keep a lookout on the island's perimeter and scope out arriving travellers who had heard word about the beach, with a sideline of stealing some marijuana from the other side of the island - protected by heavily armed Thai farmers.
In time, Unhygenix informs everyone that their rice supply has been infected by a fungus and Sal announces an emergency Rice Run - a regular chore wherein a few community members are required to head to the mainland discreetly by boat to buy some rice and additional supplies if need be. Because of this daunting task, hardly anyone volunteers for this job except for Jed, who, to the bewilderment of most in the island, always volunteers for the job. Richard also volunteers, and so the two travel back to Koh Phangan for their supplies. It is during the Rice Run that Jed finds out that Richard gave a copy of the map to Sammy and Zeph when Jed overheard the two Americans talking about the beach to some German travellers. The Rice Run goes without a hitch but soon, Zeph and Sammy are accompanied by the three Germans they met on the mainland, and they arrive at the neighbouring island, which worries Richard because he might be blamed if they successfully arrive on the beach. Coinciding with this troubling development, Sal reassigns Richard to the perimeter detail to partner with Jed and keep a close eye on the impending invaders.
Because of a free spot in Gregorio's fishing detail, Keaty moves in to take Richard's place. A few days later, Keaty catches a dead squid that poisons most of the residents, and the few healthy members remaining struggle to nurse the sick residents back to normalcy. After the food poisoning incident, Richard returns from his sentry duty high on the island to find that Bugs has punched Keaty in the face because of the squid disaster. Richard, having never liked Bugs due to his stoic nature, instigates a heated argument with him, and the community becomes fractured into several social groups. On this day, only two of the fishing details are still in operation and the best detail, consisting of three Swedes (Christo, Sten, and Karl) who fish outside the safe lagoon area, is attacked by a shark. The camp only finds out about this with the return of one of the three, Karl, in the early evening. Karl carries Sten on his back to the island, where Sten is discovered to be already dead on arrival. Karl was not physically hurt by the shark, but he suffers a mental breakdown from the traumatic event. Karl subsequently spends his time sitting in a dug-out hole on the beach and not talking to anyone; barely accepting food and water. Richard realises that Christo is still missing and, at his own risk, goes to find him in the partially submerged caves of the lagoon. Richard is praised for his heroic rescue of Christo. However, as Christo is gravely wounded, he requires Jed's presence in the camp, because Jed has some medical knowledge to tend to him. This leaves Richard to work the sentry detail alone on the island.
A few days later, a funeral is held for Sten near the jungle waterfall, and Sal gives a decisive speech which goes some way to restoring social harmony within the camp. She announces that it is the 11th of September, and that they will thus be celebrating the Tet festival in three days' time - this will be the sixth birthday for the beach community and she suggests they celebrate it as a "fresh start" for the group. Being alone on the mainland of the island since his transfer to Jed's detail, Richard now begins to have hallucinations in which Daffy appears: they talk regularly and begin to patrol the part of the island which Richard refers to as the DMZ together. Richard comes to appreciate that Daffy killed himself because he could neither endure the slow unravelling of his elitist vision of the beach as the community grew, nor a return to normal life, and that he himself is falling prey to that way of thinking. Richard also realizes that Daffy gave him the map so other travellers would find the beach. Daffy describes this act as "euthanizing" the secluded beach community, and Richard realizes he was merely a pawn in Daffy's scheme. This comes to a peak following the arrival of the American/German group, by raft. Unlike Richard, Étienne and Françoise who managed to overcome the five main obstacles in getting to the beach, the newcomers never make it past the fourth hurdle - the marijuana field guarded by the Thai farmers. Richard witnesses them being first beaten and then taken away. Afraid to see any further, Richard runs away, but hears the ominous sound of fired gunshots, signifying that the Thai farmers have killed the intruders.
Richard returns to the community campsite to immediately inform Sal and Jed. He then goes to the beach to visit Karl, who, after being provoked, seemingly attacks Richard and runs off into the jungle. The next day, the day of the Tet festival, Sal obtusely asks Richard to kill Karl because of the threat he poses to the mood of the celebrations, with her constant excuse of having to lift the "morale" of the community. Richard, disillusioned of the beach's way of living, finally resolves to escape with his closest friends. That night, he swims out to the cave where the group's only boat is kept, only to find that Karl has used it to escape to the mainland. Étienne corners him thereafter and soon discovers that he, along with the rest of his clique, has become afraid of Richard "doing things" for Sal. Richard convinces Étienne, Françoise, Jed, and a now paranoid Keaty to leave the beach for good, after having euthanized the dying Christo.
Night falls, and the Tet festival is going in full swing. Prior to the party, Keaty and Richard spiked the stew Unhygenix cooked with marijuana, sending the partygoers on an overloaded high. Along with some fermented coconut juice which severely inebriates most of the group, Richard and his friends are almost in the clear to escape when suddenly, the marijuana guards arrive at the camp to threaten all of them, and beat up Richard, leaving the dead bodies of the American/German party as a warning. Most of the beach dwellers begin to go insane and suddenly start to rip the bodies apart in a terrifying frenzy. Sal discovers that Richard has spread the secret of the beach when she picks up the map he drew for Zeph and Sammy, brought by the head Thai guard. Upon this information, the unstable community members work themselves into a murderous rage, stabbing Richard multiple times and bringing him close to death. He is saved when Françoise, Étienne, Keaty and Jed return from the beach with fishing spears to drive the others off, wounding Sal and Bugs in the process. Richard and his rescuers make an escape with the raft that the now dead intruders left on the other side of the island.
In the epilogue, it is revealed that the five friends managed to get away and used their travelling street savvy to return to civilization. It has been a year and one month since their departure from Thailand, and Richard has returned to his home in Britain where he has not heard from Françoise and Étienne again, but knows he is likely to bump into them eventually because "the world is a small place, and Europe is even smaller". However, he still keeps in contact with Keaty and Jed. Richard comments unexpectedly they are able to "deal with [their] shared history". By chance, Keaty and Jed end up working in the same building, although for different companies; they like how they both stayed in the same guest house that burned down a few years before they both arrived at the beach. He also hears of a news report on how Cassie has been arrested in Malaysia for smuggling a large amount of heroin and is the first Westerner to be executed in the country in six years. Richard wonders whether other people got off the island too, especially Unhygienix, who was a decent guy. He believes that Bugs died and hopes that Sal died, too, although not maliciously. He states that he does not like the idea of her "turning up on his doorstep". Richard finishes by saying he is content with his life, though he carries a lot of scars: "I like the way that sounds. I carry a lot of scars".
- Richard - a young British traveller and the main narrator of the novel.
- Daffy (Mister Duck) - A Scottish traveller and one of the three original founders of the beach; appears as a mental apparition in Richard's consciousness in the later parts of the novel after his suicide.
- Étienne and Françoise - both French; two young lovers who befriended Richard during their initial encounter in Bangkok, and subsequently join him on the journey in finding the beach after being disclosed about its whereabouts by Daffy's map.
- Keaty - English; becomes close friends with Richard, and shares a Game Boy addiction. Invited by Sal and Bugs to the beach after going on an illegal trek with the founders over the Burmese border.
- Jed - English; becomes close friends with Richard, and is the island's guardian. Turned up on the beach without a personal invitation, having overheard a rumor of the island while traveling in Vientiane. Daffy is the sole person in the community completely against his uninvited arrival.
- Sal - American; one of the three original founders of the beach, and the unofficial leader of the beach community.
- Zeph and Sammy - The two stoner Americans to whom Richard leaves a copy of the map to the beach. Both attend Harvard University. However, they often feign inferior intellect to counteract snobby Europeans' views of Americans.
- Bugs - South African; Sal's boyfriend, one of the three original founders of the beach, and the community's head carpenter; has a mutual dislike with Richard.
- Gregorio - Spanish; member of Richard's fishing detail. Invited by Daffy to the beach after a robbing incident in Sumatra.
- Unhygenix - Italian; the community's head chef and is friends with Richard. Invited by Bugs to the beach after cooking him a six-course meal in Srinagar.
- Ella - Works in the cooking detail next to Unhygenix. Invited by Sal to the beach after bonding over a backgammon game whilst on an eighteen-hour bus ride together.
- Jean - French; leader of the gardening detail. Invited by Bugs to the beach after working together picking grapes from a vineyard in Blenheim.
- Cassie - English; Girlfriend of Jesse; works with Bugs in the carpentry detail.
- Jesse - New Zealander; boyfriend of Cassie, and works with Jean in the gardening detail.
- Moshe - Israeli; head of the second fishing detail. Invited by Daffy to the beach after catching a pickpocket attempting to steal his backpack in Manila.
- The Yugoslavian Girls - Two unnamed females from Sarajevo in which Richard comments their names are hard to spell out or even pronounce, and are thus dubbed as the Yugo Girls. He also gives the impression they are very haughty. They work with Moshe exclusively in the second fishing detail, as Sal regrets inviting them to the beach seeing as they aren't capable of doing anything else.
- Karl, Sten, and Christo (The Swedes) - all Swedish; Considered the best fishing detail since the three men fish out of the lagoon waters with the community boat. Only Sten is fluent in English, with Christo having fair knowledge, and Karl knowing only a few words. Like Jed, the Swedes arrived uninvited, as they knew of the beach's existence after overhearing Sal discussing with Jean about the island during a Rice Run.
- The Thai island guards - Menacing-looking men who guard the marijuana plantation on the other side of the island with their automatic rifles.
- "[Garland is a] natural-born storyteller" who "combines an unlikely group of influences - Heart of Darkness, Vietnam War movies, Lord of the Flies, the Super Mario Bros. video game - into ... ambitious, propulsive fiction." (Washington Post).
- "A Lord of the Flies for Generation X" (Nick Hornby)
- "Generation X's first great novel" (Sunday Oregonian).
- “A furiously intelligent first novel … a book that moves with the kind of speed and grace many older writers can only day-dream about” – Washington Post
Film and television adaptations
- "BBC - The Big Read". BBC. April 2003, Retrieved 31 October 2012
- Porter, Rick (August 7, 2012). "'Secret Circle' creator hits 'The Beach'; Wilmer Valderrama joins 'Raising Hope'". Zap2it. Retrieved August 7, 2012.