Alex Garland, Book Reviews, Penguin Classics
Comments 36

Beaucoup bad shit, too beaucoup.

He just wanted a decent book to read..

Not too much to ask, was it? It was in 1935 when Allen Lane stood on a British railway platform looking for something good to read on his journey. His choice was limited to popular magazines and poor quality paperbacks. Lane’s disappointment and subsequent anger at the range of books available led him to found a company – and change the world.

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And thank god for us poor readers that he did.

I was not overly impressed with my first Penguin Orange Classic, given to me during a younger age in which I literally judged a book by its cover. Over the years I have come to appreciate and adore these little orange and white masterpieces for what they are: excellent literature in an insanely affordable form. Additionally, they now appeal to my aesthetic eye, lined up perfectly on a bookshelf like word soldiers. And yes, I may or may not have alphabetised them by author’s surname. What of it?

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A friend of mine asked recently why I buy so many of them.

The reason is simple and twofold: they are always, no matter where you get them from, (including notoriously expensive airport bookshops), $9.95. I know exactly how many of them I can buy with the money I have. I enjoy the thrill of walking away from a bookstore with multiple purchases, bought for the same price as one new bestseller.

The second reason, equally as important as the first, is that I know they will always be quality literature. Varied and unusual, yes, but quality, always. No more wasting money on books that are a gamble, books that have a fantastic cover, engaging blurb yet turn out to be pages of rubbish. Often I barely read the back of these little beauties, I have that much faith in Penguin’s discerning selection process. Which is why I own everything from Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s Dangerous Liasions, to Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Timothy Conigrave’s Holding the Man, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Andy Warhol’s The Philosophy of Andy Warhol.

Yet another item for my literary bucket list:

– Own every Orange Penguin Classic in print.

Granted, this is slightly over-ambitious, seeing as new ones are published all the time. But I have a vision of an entire room in my mansion, (upon winning the lotto), which has a wall to ceiling alphabetised collection of these beautiful books. Excuse me. I am getting carried away.

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I was given my first Penguin Orange Classic by a long forgotten ex-boyfriend, way back in 2008. I was setting off for Asia by myself, a scared and bewildered 19 year old who had never even travelled across the country alone. This self-same ex was actually the reason I was going. Much older than me and far more self-assured, he gave me a piece of advice, which along with my Penguin may have been the only helpful thing he did during our entire relationship. He said:

If you’re going to drop out of university you have to go travelling. It has to be one or the other.

As painful as this was to hear at the time, it was far and away the best piece of advice I have ever been given. It’s blunt execution forced me to storm into a travel agency and book a three month ticket to Asia without giving it a second thought. No time for questioning, no time for rationalising, no time for realising that Christmas and New Year’s is not the best possible time to be all alone in a foreign country. No matter.

Upon our goodbye, amidst many tears and heartache, I presented this ex-boyfriend with a beautifully wrapped, expensive, full colour photo book of the paintings of Salvador Dali. I wrote a long, embarrassingly pleading letter to accompany it, no doubt expressing my undying love and devotion, swearing fidelity during our long months apart. Ahh, the folly of youth.

In return, he handed me an unwrapped, orange and white paperback. He apologised for the cheapness of the gift, no doubt overwhelmed by my expensive offering and my desperate overtures of love. I cried and cried while he told me:

Look, Carpe Diem and you have carte blanche. Don’t worry about me, enjoy yourself over there. If you meet someone over there, go for it. You are only young once.

Clearly, following his first piece of advice wasn’t working out too flash for me at this moment in time. I therefore promptly ignored this second piece of advice.

To my detriment, as he was clearly inclined to follow it himself…

Nevertheless, I took this orange and white paperback to Asia with me, reading it for the first time on the plane to Bangkok. For the second time in a hostel in Siem Riep, Cambodia. For the third time on a painfully long bus trip through Vietnam, and for the fourth time on a balcony in Luang Prabang, Laos. During this three month foray through South East Asia I read literally hundreds of books, stealing them from hostel bookshelves, buying them for a few baht in dodgy corner bookshops, and trading them for new ones in cafes everywhere. Yet I clung to this dirty paperback like a lifeline, reading and re-reading it each time I felt lonely or homesick.

It was Alex Garland’s The Beach.

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I adore this book. There has been many times over the years that I have considered throwing it out, generally in a fit or rage over said ex-boyfriend, but I could never bring myself to do it. The book itself is dirty, stained, dog-eared and torn, a veteran of travels amongst the far cleaner and more proper Penguins I now own.

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I read this book like a testimonial to my own travels, an endless journey to find a perfect place that doesn’t exist. Garland’s words spoke to me, describing my journey as if he himself was there:

If I’d learnt one thing from travelling, it was
that the way to get things done was to go ahead and do them. Don’t talk about
going… Book a ticket, get a visa, pack a bag, and it just happens.

How right he was. I followed this advice and found myself in the Bangkok of Richard’s descriptions:

Khao San Road was backpacker land. Almost all the buildings had been converted into guest houses, there were long-distance-telephone booths with air con, the cafes showed brand-new Hollywood films on video, and you couldn’t walk ten feet without passing a bootleg-tape stall. The main function of the street was as a decompression chamber for those about to leave or enter Thailand, a halfway house between East and West.

Reading this you just know that Garland has made the trip, he is able to summarise the overwhelming, intoxicating atmosphere of Khao San Road so concisely, as well as the confusion and apprehension you feel as a backpacker lobbed into this melting pot of cultures. The protagonist Garland creates, Richard, could have been one of hundreds of backpackers I met along the way. In fact, I met a gorgeous Norwegian named Richard in a hostel in Kuala Lumpar, who promptly became the Richard of the book in my mind.

The Beach is a complex intertwining of the mundane and the horrific, Garland cleverly constructs a trip that any traveller in Thailand could see themselves venturing upon. There is something about Thailand that melts away your insecurities, anything seems possible in the land where everything is for sale. Through this book we are taken down the rabbit hole to ‘the beach’ of Garland’s creation, an idyllic, utopian setting that rapidly becomes the backdrop to a horror story. There are elements of Lord of the Flies throughout, a study of the predictability of human nature as it creates its own domination and submission in a situation allegedly devoid of it.

The final climax, the gruesome encounter between the beach dwellers and the Thai marijuana farmers, is typical of Garland’s eclectic narrative style. Richard is again visited by his hallucination of ‘Daffy’, who died in the opening chapter of the book. The writing is confused and contradictory, highlighting the disarray of the scene as it unfolds.

The stabbing continued, but it no longer hurt. The faces continued whirling, but the face I knew remained constant. I could talk to it calmly, and it could talk back.

‘Daffy’, I said. ‘This is fucked.’

‘Yeah, GI.’ He smiled. ‘Beaucoup bad shit.’

‘Fragged by my own side.’

‘Happens all the time.’

A blade punctured my top lip. ‘It doesn’t mean anything, right?’

‘Doesn’t mean much.’

‘Never should have been here. That’s all.’ I sighed as my legs collapsed and I fell down to the palm-leaf carpet. ‘Jesus, this is a nasty way to die. At least it’s ending.’

‘Ending?’ Daffy shook his head. ‘It can’t end now.’

‘Can’t?’

‘Come on Rich. Think. Think how it ought to end.’

‘Ought to…’

‘A flat roof, a panicking crowd, not enough room on the…’

‘…Last chopper out.’

‘That’s the boy.’

‘Evacuation.’

‘Every time.’

Here Garland is making reference to Richard’s obsession with the Vietnam War, an obsession that flows throughout the book. Interestingly, this final climactic scene was one of the few changes that the directors made throughout the Hollywood recreation of The Beach. Naturally they interjected a love story and a sex scene, standard fare for any major Hollywood movie. But whether they thought Garland’s ending was too graphic, too confusing, or too spun out for a movie I don’t know. I haven’t done the research. But the book wouldn’t be Garland’s if the ending were any different, he plays it out just as you would want him to.

Beaucoup bad shit, too beaucoup.

The final chapter gives us just enough information to act as an epilogue, but not too much that the mystery of ‘the beach’ is ruined. Garland ends with the appearance of Richard writing the book as a memoir, reflecting honestly on ‘the beach’ and what happened there. Yet another mirror of my life, and the life of many a backpacker, returning to the comforts of reality only to imbibe your travels with a nostalgic quality. Then the desperation of trying to capture the memories on paper before they disappear entirely. This, I can strongly relate to.

But it is the final three lines of this outstanding novel that I love the most, lines that I could just as easily appropriate for myself. In fact, I regularly do.

I carry a lot of scars. I like the way that sounds.

I carry a lot of scars.

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36 Comments

  1. N@ncy says

    Wonderful piece of writing that I enjoyed reading with my morning coffee! Inspired, I’m going to gather all my Penguin books today and put them in a special place in the bookcase!

  2. Love Penguin period! I’v started to collect some of my favorite classics in the Penguin English Library collection. Not too expensive either but beautiful. I totally agree with why buy a book when you’re not sure of the quality. Lord knows there are so many bad ones out there. The Beach sounds like a very interesting book, certainly since I’ve never been to Asia. As for movie adaptations I avoid them more and more and this one I didn’t see either. Thanks for this beautifully written post which conjures up a bit of nostalgia for my hometown New Orleans….

  3. Oh and don’t you ever throw away those well read and worn Penguins no matter who wants you too. 😉

  4. I have actually been in a house with a room like that (in Scotland, of course) where hundreds of penguin books (representing several entire series) were collected (alphabetised by author for the first 20 years, on floor to ceiling shelves, then stacked insanely for the next 15). It was heaven. Except for the fear of being buried alive. But otherwise, heaven.

  5. Great piece for sure! Thanks for the follow and don’t be surprised if you find me lurking about your bloggy-space from time to time 🙂

  6. Pingback: ‘I feel fine.’ | The Paperbook Blog

  7. Gotta love those Penguin Classics. I wonder if one day all the paperback books will just breakdown into a fine dust and blow away, and we will be left with the latest version of i-pad or Kindle. I cherish the books purchased in college that managed to survive, replete with dog-eared pages, notes in the margins and all the lines that quenched my thirsty soul, underscored with black pen! Thanks for a lovely post.

    • Noo! I couldn’t imagine a world without ‘real’ books, that would be horrifying! 🙂 I also love looking through my old school/uni books, all the intellectual sounding notes I made on each page that I can barely understand now. I’m glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

  8. I love this and I love your collection. Plus (I admit, it was the Franglish that drew me in!) you’ve pointed me to The Beach– the newest addition to my reading list 🙂

  9. Franglish – what a wonderful word. I have to admit I have been trying to translate the meaning of the sentence in my head since the very first time I read The Beach, I have got as far as ‘too much bad shit, too too much’ or something. I have to admit, it sounds much better in Franglish, just the way Garland intended it!

  10. Superb, a lot of content that many can relate too. Our scars are what make us beautiful. Well written and interesting 🙂

  11. I’d seen the movie of ‘The Beach’ years ago when it came out, and loved it, but only just about a year ago did I come across a copy of the book in my ship’s library while I was on deployment, still haven’t finished reading it to this day, always get sidetracked with life and other books and such, but this great blog entry makes me want to pick it up off my shelf and give it another go.

  12. I hope you do, there is so much more complexities in the book than in the movie. In saying that I still thoroughly enjoyed the movie, even after I had read the book (100 times). It is a great adaptation, although very different. I hope you like the book as much as I did!

  13. Loved this post! Your comments about the love of books – Penguins – and travel made me wonder at the frequent connection between writing and traveling, perhaps we always want to explore something, in some manner.
    And thank you for following Newbie Writers Guide, our own version of the adventure of writing!

  14. Thank you very much! Yes maybe the connection between travel/writing is so strong because we feel the need to have a lasting record of the adventures we have along the way…I’m looking forward to exploring your blog further!

  15. George Hardwick says

    I had no idea Penguin books started out this way. Nice post!

  16. Thankyou! I know it’s so hard to imagine a world without good quality paperbacks. We have a lot to thank Allen Lane for 🙂

  17. AnElephantCant deny it
    He too takes the occasional chance
    He once more leaves home
    To go for a roam
    Although he is only emigrating to France

  18. Pingback: The Paperbook Blog Needs You!! | The Paperbook Blog.

  19. I loved this book, hated the changes they made to the film (but still enjoyed the film), and loved this blog too! Mine is a horrible copy I picked up on Pham Ngu Lao in Saigon. It was pretty shabby to start with, so as you can imagine it’s beyond saving now.

  20. An excellent and evocative entry. I too love The Beach and Alex Garland, such a good writer. Think it is time to re-read it… Have you ever read The Coma by him? I adore that book as well!

      • Same for me, currently reading Kafka’s ‘The Castle’ and it would fit right in! Ever read any Paul Auster? Came cross him by chance the other week and I have come to love his ‘New York Trilogy’ book.

  21. Pingback: 2013 – Year of The Paperbook Collective. | The Paperbook Blog.

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