"Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather, and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know." - John Keats

"You're not allowed to say anything about books because they're books and books are, you know, God." - Nick Hornby

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Review #9: The Beach, by Alex Garland

The Beach arrived in my inbox from JB, he of Shantaram and The Brothers K and Edgar. (I've decided that people who give you books are the best kind of people.) 

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.

Review #8: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

I've never read Cormac McCarthy, even though he's on all the Must Read lists. And I've never seen No Country For Old Men, despite the fact that I would probably watch Javier Bardeem watch paint dry. It seemed very Western to me, and Westerns aren't really my thing, The Road isn't really my thing either - let's not forget I'm the same girl who read Beautiful Bastard, not once, but twice - but sometimes you have to read smart books, and McCarthy is definitely on that list.

The Road centers around the man and the boy - no names here, for names are wholly unimportant - making their way down a literal road in a trek to the sea. It feels like they're in America, but it's an America unlike anything we know now. It's cold, it's grey, it's snowing, and there is nothing left. Quite literally, nothing. No power, no food, no people, nothing. Their destination is the coast, with the man telling the boy that if they could just get to the sea, they may be able to get to some sort of salvation and maybe find other survivors, the "good guys". But the man doesn't know that for sure; in fact, he has no idea what they will find there, but he knows that to stay put means certain death.

But there are shadowy dangers along the way. Other people, the cold, the snow, lack of food, lack of water, lack of shelter, lack of humanity threatens their survival. The man and boy are often forced to hide in woods underneath trees that will never turn green, or along the banks of icy rivers, huddled under plastic tarps, desperate for warmth. Added to this, the man has a mysterious cough, tinged pink with blood, and although he tried to hide it from the boy, it soon becomes clear that he is training the boy for life after he is gone.

McCarthy never details what catastrophic event led to the destruction of the entire world. I assume a nuclear bomb, but I have trouble imagining the whole country - or possibly the whole world - affected by that. I also thought of some sort of climate change event, or perhaps a volcanic eruption, and at one point I even entertained a zombie invasion. My guess is nuclear bomb, but my feeling is also that it doesn't matter what the event is, only that it is.

McCarthy's not easy to read. The emotions that pour off the page and in to the reader are far more complicated than his simple, sparse prose would indicate. I found myself sort of mooning about the house or my office after reading this at lunchtime, in such a melancholy mood at times that Boss asked what was wrong with me. "Reading this book," I said. "Ah," he nodded, in perfect understanding of how a book can affect one's mood. 

The Road is bleak and sad and reeks of loneliness, but there are also pockets - albeit infinitesimally small ones - of hope strewn in there. It's hope that keeps us alive, after all, even in the face of utter destruction, and hope that marches forward.