Question Of The Week: "The Beach"

Conor Friedersdorf

A reader writes:

Okay, so Alex Garland's pinnacle (and first) novel, The Beach, is not what many academics consider a literary masterwork. But once you get past that initial criticism, you do realize that it is an impressively complex book buried within a thick candy shell of pop cultural accessibility, which is a recipe for a profoundly effecting novel with mass appeal for any twenty-something person with a restless spirit and dreams of escape. The book's primary message - as most people know, if not by reading the book then by seeing the Leonardo DiCaprio movie it spawned - is that of finding Utopia among like-minded vagabonds and travelers, then seeing it squandered and torn apart from within.

For me at the impressionable age of 16, as for most people who encountered it, The Beach was a clarion call for all those gen-xers and gen-yers who could care less about the 60's and the hippies, hated the pre-planned culture of the yuppies, and were generally dissatisfied with the world as it is. The Beach said to us: if you don't like something, change it yourself; if you don't want to be where you are, just leave. Its seductive nihilism invites the reader to find their own paradise, and damn the consequences - with just one catch: don't expect perfection, because perfection does not exist. A Utopia can only go so far as humanity allows it, which, it turns out, is not very far. And this cognitive dissonance shaped my world from that point forward: My political independence, my love of freedom but fear of its consequences, my avoidance of zealotry - all thanks to that novel, a keystone in my life. I would even say that I am now a Dish Reader because I first was a Beach Reader.