Our protagonist is Richard, a twenty-something British traveller, drifting about southeast Asia with no real discernible purpose. On his first night in Bangkok, he shares a wall and a joint with another traveller, Mr. Duck, and in the morning, discovers Mr. Duck’s bloody body as well as a meticulously drawn map to a hidden beach on a forbidden island. Shocked and stunned by Mr. Duck’s suicide, convinced that he left the map for him for some bigger reason, Richard decides to find the hidden Eden, and enlists the help of a young French couple, Etienne and the beautiful Francoise. On the eve of their departure, though, Richard, suddenly unsure he’s making the right decision and nervous about disappearing to a hidden island with two strangers, makes a crude copy of the map and passes it to two more travellers, a decision that will come back to bite him later.
Together, Richard, Etienne, and Francoise set out to find the beach, and when they finally arrive, they discover a hidden paradise, ruled by the formidable Sal and populated by about two dozen European ex-pats. Each member of the enclave has a job to do, from fishing to cooking to gardening, and Richard, Etienne, and Francoise are the first newbies to arrive in years. Etienne and Francoise quickly assimilate, but Richard seems to never fully settle in to being comfortable on the beach.
The ghost of Mr. Duck makes several appearances, and there are some strange Vietnam references mixed in, which become more real and more graphic when Richard is assigned to Jed, the beach’s patrolman. While I really liked Jed – without a doubt my favorite character and I wish we had been able to spend more time with him – the hallucinations and daydreams of Vietnam kind of took me out of the story, and I couldn’t make sense of them. They felt self-indulgent and unnecessary, at least in their frequency. Many of the characters felt self-indulgent as well, but again, I think that was part of a larger point. I did wonder, often, about the beach-goers’ families and whether anyone missed them, particularly when Death settled on the shores of this paradise, but nobody else seemed concerned about it. Rather, they were more worried that their Tet celebration would be compromised. It’s inevitable that paradise will collapse on itself – one only has to look at the history books to know that – but the manner of the beach’s collapse surprised me. At times, it felt gratuitously savage, but maybe that was part of a larger point. Maybe we’re destined to destroy the very things that bring us pleasure.
Told from Richard’s standpoint, memoir-style, almost as if he were sitting in a dark bar on a rainy Tuesday afternoon with you, perhaps in New York or Chicago, almost certainly far removed from the beach, the novel wanders a bit, but there is always an underlying anxiety that never quite goes away, and so the reader is never quite able to relax. The entire time I was reading this, I was on edge, wondering what was going to happen, what was going to come out of the jungle, how it was going to come to an end. And with that sentence, I’ve just realized we’ve come full circle to the Vietnam references. Hmm…maybe they weren’t as unnecessary as I originally thought.
The Beach is a quick read, original and frenetic and trippy and hallucinogenic. And, from what I hear, infinitely better than the movie.