Beach Boy

26-year-old Alex Garland, author of the harrowing novel "The Beach," talks about the quest for mystery in a world that's too well known.

Published February 11, 1997 7:00PM (EST)

amid the high heap of interesting first novels hitting bookstores this spring, Alex Garland's "The Beach" (Riverhead) stands out. It's that real rarity: a subtle and complex novel that reads like a comet. The book's London-based author, all of 26, feels like a natural born storyteller.

"The Beach" is set in Southeast Asia, where several young Western travelers find themselves adrift in Thailand's backpacker culture. When these travelers find a map to a fabled paradise -- a remote island peopled only by a small communal group -- they seek it out and find themselves plunged into a troubled Eden. The resulting narrative feels like a hallucinogenic co-mingling of "The Lord of the Flies" and "The Heart of Darkness."

"The Beach" matters not just because Garland is such a propulsive storyteller. He's written what may be the first novel about the endless quest for genuine experience among members of the so-called Generation X -- twentysomethings weaned on video games, TV and a decade's worth of pop detritus -- that's not snide or reflexively cynical. Young readers are likely to be grateful for Garland's levelheaded vision. I suspect we'll be seeing tattered paperback copies of "The Beach" tucked into backpacks across the world next summer, right next to the de rigueur Lonely Planet guidebooks.

"The Beach" is already a big success in the U.K., where it was published several months ago. While high-minded critics were pricking up their ears in journals like the London Times Literary Supplement and the London Daily Telegraph, the popular press was busy trying to gobble up the book's photogenic young author. (British Vogue squealed: "'The Beach' is the book to have; its author, Alex Garland, is the man to have.")

Garland dismisses this giddy attention. ("I am acutely aware that it's daft," he says.) In fact, he claims that he is merely happy to have found a profession. He began writing fiction, he says, not from compulsion but because of his panicked awareness that his friends were settling into careers and he wasn't. A committed traveler who has spent a good deal of time in Southeast Asia, Garland is currently at work on his second novel. He spoke with Salon from his apartment in London.

Your book is about the search for that traveler's Holy Grail -- the last untrampled, Edenic spot. Your characters feel that everything worth doing has already been done.

I think there is a sense that the world is a completely known quantity these days. It doesn't hold a great deal of mystery. Most things on planet earth are now completely explicable -- and that's something that has to be dealt with by people. One of the ways people deal with it is by rejecting that reality and opting for a wishful thinking, New Age, spiritualistic approach -- to sort of rediscover mystery in a way. But for myself, I think that people have to come to terms with the fact that that kind of mystery is not really a part of human existence anymore in the way that it once was.

Your book is also about our longing for experiences that feel authentic and original to us. Has this kind of longing grown more acute for members of the so-called "X" generation?

It's certainly not just a generational thing. I detect it in older people as much as I do people my own age. I'm sure there were equivalents before, that people born in the '60s or '50s or '40s had their own kind of longing that wasn't so different. But if you were born in 1920 or 1930, you might have fulfilled that longing by, say, joining the army. And now, post-Vietnam, joining the army for me and my peers is not really something we'd consider for a second. Instead we sate that longing some other way.

Through travel?

Yes. Although it wouldn't have to be travel -- it could be whatever. But I think to be experienced in some kind of way feels important to a lot of people. I got one kind of experience through travel, but most of one's experience you just get through living.

What "one kind" of experience did you get through travel?

I think it's very, very easy to think that the place you live is the only place in the world. That there may be other places, but they don't really exist -- they're on TV documentaries, or news footage, but they're not real. As soon as you go abroad, you see that, in fact, not only do these places exist, but the preoccupations of the people who live in those places are very similar to your own.

I'm interested in the way that your hero's interest in video and computer games feeds "The Beach's" subtext. That felt new to me, the way you used the games to color the way this intelligent man looks at the world.

That (video) culture is my culture. Given that there is an element of autobiography here, or at least some documentation of a kind of sensibility of my peer group, those things are bound to find their way in there.

"The Beach" is one of the few novels I've read in which a character admits an addiction to video games without at the same time mocking them or treating them ironically.

Well, there may be plenty to mock. But if a completely unironic passion for video games comes through in the book, it's because I play video games. I've played them since I was 8 years old. I enjoy them -- I still do. In fact, I was playing one when I got on the telephone (laughs). To tell you the truth, I'm reminded of one of the things that always used to piss me off about pop art. Roy Liechtenstein used to always really annoy me because he'd be using popular culture, he'd be doing this thing about a comic strip, but there'd be something ironic about it. It bothered me that it wasn't really an appreciation of a comic strip -- it was much more that, because he was this fine artist, it was he who was doing something that was elevating it to the level of art, by his ironic appreciation of it. Well, he can go fuck himself (laughs). He could have just taken the comic strip as an art form in its own right, and put those things up on a wall, instead of congratulating himself by recognizing some kind of special worth in popular culture. So personally, if I were writing about video games, I wouldn't want to fall into that pop art trap. Because I genuinely like these things for exactly what they are. And there's nothing ironic about it at all -- I think they're great.

I read somewhere that you started writing because you were panicked -- your friends all had careers and you didn't.

I went to university, and I did a degree, but it was one that wouldn't lead on to anything. And I'm not really very academic, so I didn't do very well at university anyway. When I came to the end of my university career, my younger brother, who hadn't gone to university, he'd already got himself a job. Friends of mine had studied law and they were going to be lawyers. They were going to have some kind of career, and I didn't have anything. And I thought, Jesus, what am I going to do when I leave university? And in fact I didn't do anything, for a few months, after I left. I started writing toward the end of university, but it didn't become serious and dedicated until sometime after.

Does writing come easily for you? You seem like something of a natural.

No, I find it really hard. I mean, I sweat over things. I get obsessive about how many times I've used "but" in a paragraph, all that sort of stuff. The thing about it is, although I'd love to be a natural, I really do work like a dog over it. I do have a background that's worth mentioning: My dad's a cartoonist, and I always thought I was going to end up doing cartoons. I used to draw comic strips constantly, so I picked up a lot about how to construct a narrative by that. And actually I think that this comes through in the book, in as much that it's quite cinematic, and comic strips are quite cinematic -- the length of chapters, and the speed with which the plot moves, and that kind of thing. So it is my background in one kind of way.

Do you smoke as much as the book's hero, Richard?

I actually smoke more than Richard.

What's it like to read, in British Vogue, the following quote: "The Beach is the book to have; it's author, Alex Garland, is the man to have"?

Oh, it's completely fucking ridiculous. Of course it is. I mean, it's sort of nice for no other reason than to show your friends and you have a laugh over it. But I am acutely aware that it's daft. So Vogue calls me the man to have for the next 30 seconds and that's it. So what's the point?

By Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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