What Alex Garland Taught Me: Gen X, Gen Y, Thailand & More
by Haniya Khalid
Most teenagers have a single paperback that they swear by: their “bible”, if I may, their go-to choice to prop against their weekend morning cereal bowl, every page doggy-eared and covered in bubble bath stains. Mine was The Beach by Alex Garland. I had discovered the copy that I still own at a secondhand bookstore in Jumeirah. It was sold to me by a grumpy old man who seemed to not really believe I spoke English, much less believe that I was interested in collecting old(ish) books. He didn’t realize that in his mildly offensive exasperation at my bargaining tactics (perfectly reasonable given the condition of the book), he was handing me the very book that would define so many things for me. It was published in 1996 and I purchased it in 2003 so it made little sense that I related to it so much: it was the book that emphasized the backpacking culture of Gen X, especially for those whom were adamant to distinguish between traveler and tourist, a necessary distinction. Garland wrote the book based on his own experiences traveling through Asia and living for several months in the Philippines. Until not too long ago, before the internet quickly brought everyone to more or less the same “time” wavelength, the Middle East millennials were always a little late to the party, and it would have been more apt to categorize us as Gen XY.
I loved everything about The Beach: the painfully stylish French youngsters, the hand-drawn maps, the descriptions of banana pancake paired with Sprite (to this day, I find this to be an incredibly intriguing breakfast choice: “one banan pancake and coke, no, sprite”), the secret community, the cricket, and the descriptions of biolumenescence (plankton that glow underwater). There was nothing literal about the story that spoke to me per se: I was about 13-14, living a sheltered life of cereal bowls and bubble baths and my adventures didn’t extend far beyond the pages. What really resonated with me, however, were the ideologies behind the book: losing yourself, finding yourself, paradise found (paradise lost), allusions to anti-capitalism, and a simpler way of living that was undefined by time or nationalistic identity. As someone who a was unconcerned about either, the motivations of the protagonist made perfect sense to me. Gen X is defined as the generation that followed the baby-boomers, the post-post world war generation. Along with that came a modernist perspective: while generations of artists had revered having an identity or at least searching for one– through war, religion, sex, law, and so on, suddenly losing your identity seemed to be a much more worthwhile venture.
The book was adapted to screen by visucentric Danny Boyle, and it was because of the movie that I developed a desire to visit Thailand during my high school years. This passion was mainly fueled by a single scene. When our hero, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, finally makes it to the beach after a grueling and life-threatening journey, he flops down on the glistening white sand and a look of utter and complete bliss takes over his tanned, toothy face. His movie-magic ecstasy is heightened by the swelling chorus of Moby’s Porcelain, thus planting the arguably unrealistic idea of Thailand in my mind. Moby was always scoring my adventures. Leo was sometimes present. When I access this ambiguous yet pleasurable part of my imagination, a collection of random images I’ve collected over the years pop up: shampoo bottles from The Body Shop which seem to always have pictures of rain forests on them as a shallow reminder of how “natural” and “outdoorsy” they are, the video for Sand in My Shoes by Dido (GREAT song), or any wooden outdoor shower. It is a fantastical element and entirely non-specific: beachy, happy, free.
A not-so-fun fact about this scene is that the filmmakers bulldozed the beach in Ko Phi Phi Lee to achieve a more perfect aesthetic, something that is both environmentally and culturally offensive.
Air travel has evolved very quickly through the years. What was once strongly associated with corporate culture, “businessmen”and glamorous air hostesses (the Pan Am logo comes to mind), rapidly changed as the industry was commercialized. For the 80s and 90s travelers, adventures explored in the book were even less mainstream than the more obscure hipsters of today: the backpackers were fewer, the stories prized and cherished.
Now, traveling is much more mainstream and relatively less expensive. Flights go to a lot more remote places so the journeys are less arduous (do you lose a few degrees of wanderlust if your journey consists of eating stale Emirates meals while watching Deadpool?); yet even so, travel is increasingly synonymous with experience. You haven’t really lived until you’ve traveled to so-and-so country is tantamount to saying you haven’t really lived until you’ve owned a couple of Chanel handbags. The distinction is very clear: there is nothing wrong with liking Chanel, as long as it comes with the awareness that it is ridiculously expensive and inaccessible to most of the world. Somehow, when exhibiting travel, we rid ourselves of the guilt we would otherwise link to “expensive” life choices– this isn’t right, and can be further broken down into much more critical social issues like voluntourism and the driving motives behind showcasing Instagram-worthy lives.
And if there was such a way to assign a metric to ‘experience’, it wouldn’t work. It would be like reducing four dimensions to two: everybody’s story is unique and interesting for different reasons. Where on the one hand Julius Verne told amazing stories about exploring everything from Africa to the Amazon river, William Faulkner found inspiration in his roots in Mississippi, a single place which influenced some of his most important work. Contemporary writers like Zadie Smith similarly write stories that are influenced by locality (NW, a novel that is literally about a postcode area being a great example of this). The greatest example of an explorer of these inside-outside questions was Tolkien, who called himself a hobbit: devoted to his routine, house and simplistic habits. The sharp contrast between his preferences to lead such a life and the grand and epic adventures he wrote about illustrated his own quest to understanding what fulfillment and imagination really meant to ordinary people, and whether physical expedition had anything to do with it at all.
The Beach, which became a cult favorite of the actual Gen X travelers that came way before I even read the book, received criticism for undermining Thai natives by treating them as literary props. Garland argued this in an interview and emphasized the satire by saying that the book was “a criticism of backpacking culture and not a celebration of it”. After years of self-discovery that did not, unfortunately, come from backpacking through Southeast Asia, my perceptions began to shift. I became less dreamy and started to see the depths of Garland’s message. Enough to fully admit that I accept capitalism about as much as I love Sephora, I do not chase experience just to gain experience or to tell a story, and what lacks in a lifestyle I once romanticized is possibly the thing I value most in life: structure. Rigor. Suits (just kidding).
Last winter, I was forced to take time off before the year ended as after that, I would lose all my vacation days. I planned a trip to Thailand (Koh Pha Ngan & Koh Phi Phi), only to back out at the very last minute. It was the tail-end of a terribly shitty phase and my anxiety was at an all-time high. I was scared, more than anything, that I would go to Thailand and not feel anything, that I wouldn’t hear ‘Porcelain’ at all, only deafening silence. I couldn’t do that–I couldn’t ruin Thailand for myself, not after a decades-long relationship. So in a somewhat selfish move, I preserved it. “Thailand” still exists somewhere–on shampoo bottles and in well-edited music videos with random and misplaced waterfalls in the background. I still plan to visit it one day, even if it isn’t where I thought it would be. That’s the good thing about hand-drawn maps: they can always be redrawn.