Laura Woollett, on the book that made her want to join a commune (or at least write about one).

I’m starting this diary because I really want to be a writer, fifteen-year-old Laura inscribed carefully on the first page of her red-and-black Spirax notebook, circa 2005. I just finished reading The Beach by Alex Garland. It’s the story of these sort of hippies backpacking in Thailand who find a secret island where all these other hippies live. The island is like a paradise with a big beach and jungle only they share it with some marijuana farmers. Anyways, things get really dark and twisted and it ends in like a total stabfest. There’s lots of references to ‘Vietnam’, which is a war I think. Anyways, I’d like to write something like that someday.    

When I first picked up Alex Garland’s 1996 cult classic The Beach, I hadn’t watched Apocalypse Now or listened to The Doors. I hadn’t read Lord of the Flies or Heart of Darkness—novels that similarly deal with human savagery in geographically isolated settings. I had no idea about the atrocities of Vietnam, or the draft, or antiwar protests, or what any of this had to do with longhaired young people smoking pot and living communally. I had no literary or social context for most of Garland’s references. Much less had I heard of Jonestown, the 1978 mass murder-suicide of 900 American socialists in a remote South American jungle—an event which represented the blood-sunset of hippie idealism and the dawn of Gen X disaffection, and which I would find myself writing about some ten years after first reading The Beach.      

What appealed to me most about The Beach at the age of fifteen wasn’t the cultural references, but the fact that the characters seemed undeniably cool. They were young, they did drugs, knew how to spearfish, had long sun-bleached hair and tans, roamed the world freely, didn’t appear to have parents. Richard, the British backpacker narrator, is a 1974-born twentysomething, brought up on violent films and video games and obsessed with Vietnam War trivia. Desensitized and seemingly directionless, he seeks to replicate the experiences of the previous generation by backpacking around Southeast Asia doing drugs. A loner, he holds himself apart from other western tourists. “Tourists went on holidays while travellers did something else. They travelled.”

What a deep guy. Or that’s what I thought when I was fifteen, anyway.

I recently reread The Beach for the first time in over ten years—appropriately, while on a writing retreat in Bali, hoping to get some major work done on my Jonestown novel. It was a different experience, to say the least. For the most part, the characters who once seemed so cool and grownup to me now seemed the exact opposite: young and stupid, uncritical of their privilege, arrogant, vain, reckless, guilty of objectifying locals and fetishising violence. I wanted to tape their mouths shut, or buy them tickets back to London/ Auckland/ Boston. I don’t doubt this was the author’s intention.

Other things didn’t change with a second reading, though. I still blazed through all 439 pages. I still found myself crushing on Étienne, the beautiful and sweet-natured French boy, even though he’s a teenager and far too young for me now. I still disliked the Daffy sections. I was still intrigued and unnerved by Sal, the community’s oddly Buddha-like female leader. I still felt sick in the underwater air pocket with Richard, and sicker at the fates of those poor, poor Swedes. The ending, though I knew what was coming, was still ‘dark and twisted’.

For all the faults of its characters, The Beach succeeds in capturing the idyllic qualities of the community: nightswimming with phosphorescence, stoned campfire conversations, the comforting echo of familiar voices in shared sleep spaces. But what really impressed me second time around was how convincingly Garland portrays group dynamics; the hierarchies, allegiances, and rivalries that can emerge within supposedly egalitarian societies; the way minor events, good and bad, can be magnified when paired with geographical/ social isolation; the threat of outsiders to communal identity, and the lengths some will go to protect this identity.   

Rereading The Beach, I couldn’t help but make comparisons to Jonestown. There were glaring differences, of course: while Jonestown was a community of over a thousand, there are only about thirty beach-dwellers. While Jonestown’s population was diverse in terms of age, race, and class, the beach-dwellers are all somewhere between eighteen and thirty-five, mostly white, and privileged enough to afford international travel. While Jonestown was founded as a socialist utopia, free of the discrimination of mainstream America, the beach community serves mostly as a tourist-free sanctuary for a select few self-professed ‘travellers’.  

Yet the similarities are there. The atmosphere; humid and green and full of unknown elements. The forces of tragedy; paranoia, secrecy, us-against-them thinking. The dream of an alternative way of living, less materialistic and more egalitarian. The violence of that dream’s destruction. 

It’s possible I would’ve found my way to writing about Jonestown without having read The Beach. But if there’s a book that’s responsible for my ongoing fascination with communal living, group dynamics, and failed utopias, it’s this one. And don’t even get me started on my fear of sharks. 

Laura Woollett's books include The Wood of Suicides, and the The Love of a Bad Man



Laura Elizabeth Woollett's picture

Laura Elizabeth Woollett

Laura Elizabeth Woollett is the author of The Wood of Suicides (2014) and The Love of a Bad Man (2016). Her novel Beautiful Revolutionary will be released by Scribe in 2018. She lives in Melbourne.