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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.’
‘Come on Rich. Think. Think how it ought to end.’
‘A flat roof, a panicking crowd, not enough room on the…’
‘…Last chopper out.’
‘That’s the boy.’
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.