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Alex Garland

Particularly since Leonardo DiCaprio starred in the film version of his surprise hit novel The Beach, the backlash has set in against Alex Garland. If you read the buzz in the literary mags and the chat rooms these days, the word now is that The Beach was a decent adventure yarn and The Tesseract a commendable but overreaching sophomore slump.

Well, it's all rubbish. Still under 30 years old and already with two best-selling and critically acclaimed works of fiction to his credit, Alex Garland is an easy target for the legions of reporters and critics with failed screenplays in their file cabinets. Nevertheless, I for one consider this wunderkind to be the real deal.

The Beach is a striking, engrossing piece of work - I couldn't put it down. The book tells the tale of Richard, a young twenty-something backpacker who, whilst hitchhiking and hostelling in Thailand, comes into possession of a map to a secret, pristine beach untouched by the swarms of Westerners (like himself) who inadvertently contaminate every environment they explore in the name of tourism. Eventually, he and an attractive French couple set off for this purported paradise, but not before he gives a copy of the map to two wandering Harvard students. When the trio arrives at "The Beach," they discover a utopian community of European and American castaways, living in harmony with the environment and completely without the varied accoutrements of the information society (save one Gameboy.) Unfortunately, Richard's actions prior to discovering the Beach will threaten to upend everything these self-imposed exiles have worked to create, which will in turn illustrate how perilous the divide can be between exotic heaven and primitive Hell...

The Beach explores the same thematic niche as Golding's Lord of the Flies and Conrad's Heart of Darkness, a fact upon which much of the criticism of the book seems to dwell. Yet, Garland succeeds in raising additional questions - What is the ultimate effect of the Let's Go/Lonely Planet mentality? To what extent have we all been permanently warped by our addiction to pop culture, and how does that in turn affect our interaction with an unspoiled environment?

Speaking of which, Alex Garland has an uncanny ability to seamlessly incorporate pop culture references into his prose. Too many young writers of movies, television, and books these days use such references only to substantiate their pop culture bona fides. Garland, on the other hand, weaves Tintin, Schindler's List, Apocalypse Now, Gameboy, Street Fighter, and various other modern-day elements in such a way that they only serve the tale.

It is truly an excellent book.

The Tesseract, Garland's second novel, is not as viscerally engaging as its predecessor, yet it is a subtle, nuanced character-driven piece that further illustrates Garland's enviously sparse prose and knack for recreating exotic settings. Garland is clearly a writer to watch as we continue to homogenize the globe at both great benefit and unknown expense.

As for the film version of The Beach, directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Shallow Grave) and starring Leonardo di Caprio, I thought it was a decent stab at the book. I like most of Boyle's previous work and am not a di Caprio hater, but I did think the movie's added romance stole much of the book's underlying tension.

Head for The Beach.

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