Sons of ‘The Beach’
Travel Books: What do "The Beach," "Are You Experienced?" and other travel novels say about us? Rolf Potts and Kristin Van Tassel explore backpacker fiction.
11.11.10 | 11:22 AM ET
When “The Beach” hit American cinemas just over 10 years ago, most of the hype surrounding the movie centered on its star, Leonard DiCaprio, and its director, Danny Boyle. Scant media attention was given to the movie’s core themes, which drew on Alex Garland’s 1996 novel of the same name about a community of Western backpackers veering its way into self-destruction on an anonymous Thai island.
Some critics compared the macabre adventure tale to earlier works like William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” or Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” but few pondered how the story reflected the globalization-tinged insecurities of the age in which it was written. In fact, the most intriguing theme of “The Beach” was not the moral degeneration of the backpackers’ island “paradise,” but the insipid consumerist fantasies that inspired how that paradise should look in the first place. In trying to create the real-world equivalent of a tourist brochure (and in succumbing to the petty social-status rivalries of home), Garland’s characters became an ironic extension of the mass culture they’d tried to escape.
To better understand how “The Beach” reflected the anxieties of its age, it’s worth looking at similarly themed pop-novels written between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of New York’s Twin Towers. We find a spate of British-authored pulp fiction about self-absorbed 20-somethings trying (and failing) to use travel in Asia as an escape from the superficial, directionless, consumerist lives they lead back home.
William Sutcliffe’s Are You Experienced? (1997), for example, is a madcap satire about a misanthropic young traveler’s misadventures in India. Simon Lewis’s Go (1999) reads like a gangster-chic potboiler, its misfit protagonists traveling to places like Hong Kong and Goa. Emily Barr’s Backpack (2001) blends serial-killer intrigue with chick-lit romance along the Southeast Asian backpacker trail. John Harris’s “The Backpacker” (2001) follows two Brits and an American on a gritty, laddish adventure through various corners of the Orient. Katy Gardner’s Losing Gemma (2002) is a coming-of-age friendship drama and murder-mystery set in India.
Though all these novels’ characters seek escape from the “regimented, mundane, nine-to-five life” bemoaned by Harris’s protagonist John, the fictionalized backpackers ultimately function as ironic agents of mass culture. In the process, their actions hint at the dull inevitability of consumer culture, as well as latent anxieties about the uncertainty of status and authenticity in an increasingly globalized world. Faraway places and their cultural differences, these novels suggest, could no longer be actively experienced; they could only be passively consumed.
Contemporary sociological and anthropological tourist-behavior studies underscore how these backpacker protagonists are influenced less by their exotic surroundings than the social dynamics of home. In a 2002 study of independent travel communities for the journal Ethnography and Social Anthropology, tourist scholar Christina Anderskov identifies independence, frugality, and acceptance of the locals as central tenets of backpacker culture. But as novels like The Beach illustrate, these values are largely a self-directed rhetoric within the insular confines of indie-travel social circles. As Anderskov acknowledges, backpackers seek each other out, and the travel communities themselves—not the host cultures—ultimately become the focus of travel. Instead of looking for nuances and complexities within the host culture, independent travelers frequently cling to signs of subcultural authenticity in each other.
Researchers have noted, for example, that within backpacker enclaves there is a clear hierarchy based on shorthand status cues curiously similar to those of home. Whereas back home income and influence might lend to status, backpackers fixate upon travel experience and fashion. Anderskov’s research subjects assert that “real backpackers” travel at least three months, and they demonstrate their credibility through their clothing, spending, and storytelling. Backpacker novels confirm this ideology, frequently using such markers to communicate experience and travel savvy.
In Gardner’s “Losing Gemma,” for example, readers learn immediately upon meeting Coral that the character’s “scuffed canvas carry-all” and well-worn clothing (a “dark red sarong, tied loosely around her concave stomach, a droopy cheesecloth top, and leather flip-flops”) advertise her two years of travel experience. Through these grungy fashion details, she is identified as “a true traveler, her soft Western edges eroded by months or even years of vivid Third World Experience.” Before long, Coral rescues the passports and money carelessly lost by two travel neophytes, Gemma and Esther, and recommends they deliberately roughen their bags in order to boost their street cred.
In addition to such strict adherence to anti-fashions, all the novels depict disheveled backpackers earning rite-of-passage by enduring the workaday hardships that come with independent travel in the developing world. When Sutcliffe’s Dave suffers a bout of diarrhea, he notes that, “crapping your pants ... is a dire and miserable experience; but having crapped your pants—I mean, that’s a pretty good conversational party piece.” Over time, status within the community’s hierarchy hinges on the accumulation of such difficult travel experiences, which travelers collect and trade like blue-chip stock portfolios.
Accordingly, upon meeting “older” Australian travelers in their 20s, Sutcliffe’s Dave admits, “I felt I couldn’t really talk about what I’d done, because they’d all been on the road for months and had amazing stories I couldn’t possibly compete with—about how they’d got lost in the Thai jungle with heroin smugglers, had fought off kitten-sized cockroaches in an Indonesian prison, or had done the entire Everest trek dressed in flip-flops and a Bondai Beach T-shirt.” Anderskov adds that this kind of social hierarchy is “situational and floating”—it depends on whom the backpacker is socializing with. As a result, it is possible for the initially clueless protagonists in the novels by Sutcliffe, Gardner, and Barr to accumulate status over time, with each of them near the end of their stories encountering “fresh-faced scared bunnies” who remind them of their previous, less experienced selves and confirm their advanced clout within the independent travel community. In this way, a typical story arc of the backpacker novel focuses not on a deepened understanding of local cultures, but on gaining social standing within travel communities that aren’t all that demographically distinct from cliquish subcultures back home.
In this vein, Anders Sorensen argues in a 2003 Annuals of Tourism Research article that social exchanges operate not simply as hierarchical “challenges” in the community, but also as the “social glue” of what is, ultimately, an insular community. Although independent travelers rhetorically “position themselves in opposition to conventional tourists,” research suggests and the novels reinforce that “interactions” with the native peoples is defined loosely—with observation counting as interaction—and the majority of encounters revolving around monetary exchanges. Overwhelmingly, this is the case in the backpacker novels. With the exception of Harris’s characters, who spend two-thirds of their time in Asian brothels, the young travelers go out of their way to keep local contact brief and simple.
Hence, a curious paradox emerges wherein native knowledge and practices contribute to backpacker status, although natives themselves are overwhelmingly absent. For example, Sutcliffe’s backpackers, “mainly into cards and drugs,” proudly teach one another how to smoke joints like the locals, though they never actually smoke with anyone other than their fellow Western travelers. The smoking, like the ethnic clothing or banana pancakes, carries import only within the confines of the backpacker community.
Both curious and interesting is the extent to which many of these novels offer genuine, if inconsistent, attempts to critique the false elitism of the communities they portray. In “The Beach,” Garland’s Richard comes, increasingly, to recognize the insignificant differences between travelers and tourists. Barr’s Tansy denies affiliation with backpackers for over half the novel, declaring that “people who spend ages on the road must be people who are scared to have proper friendships, who are too insecure to put down roots, but who want to reinvent themselves, safe with strangers, year after year after year.” Gardner’s novel includes the narrative commentary that: “Backpackers who treat ... the world as a vast global playground ... for their personal thrills and adventure, [run] the risk of being violently disabused.”
The most explicit and extended critique comes in Sutcliffe’s novel, which includes an encounter between Dave and a western journalist, who challenges openly and at length not only Dave and his enclave, but also the very possibility that life in a backpacker community might ever approximate anything resembling authenticity:
The real point would have to be about how going to India isn’t an act of rebellion these days, it’s actually a form of conformity for ambitious middle-class kids who want to be able to put something on their CV that shows a bit of initiative ... You come here and cling to each other as if you’re on some kind of extended management-bonding exercise in Epping Forest ... I suppose you could call it a modern form of ritual circumcision—it’s a badge of suffering you have to wear to be welcomed into the tribe of Britain’s future elite. Your kind of travel is all about low horizons dressed up as open-mindedness. You have no interest in India, and no sensitivity for the problems this country is trying to face up to. You also treat Indians with a mixture of contempt and suspicion which is reminiscent of the Victorian colonials.
Curiously, these moments of insight and perspective never lead to identifiable, plot-driven character development within the novels’ pages. Sutcliffe, Barr, and Gardner’s travelers ultimately stumble into vague personal or romantic realizations; Lewis and Garland’s protagonists reach the final pages chastened by harrowing episodes of violence; Harris’s characters don’t even appear to travel along a recognizable dramatic arc. None of the novels is resolved in a manner that might suggest an interest in the dynamic host cultures that lurk beneath the consumerist veneer of backpacker fantasy.
While it’s difficult to discern whether these tepid plot resolutions reflect authorial intentionality or a collective failure of the imagination on the part of the writers, they offer a telling glimpse into the ways in which 21st century travel experiences are becoming more and more an extension of home life. These are not, after all, ambitious literary novels; they are pulp fictions, most of them rushed to press in the years surrounding the best-selling success (and cinematic re-rendering) of “The Beach.” In this way, the novels may well reflect populist fears and globalization-era preoccupations that might have been absent in more nuanced narratives.
If the self-obsessed dimwits who serve as protagonists in these stories never question their consumer-driven expectations of what is and isn’t “authentic” in exotic places, it could be that the authors themselves were beholden to the same rhetorical convolutions and cross-cultural confusions along an Asian backpacker trail that was rapidly becoming an extension of global mass culture.
Indeed, if the fictional backpackers of fin de siècle pop entertainments could travel halfway around the world only to discover that they hadn’t really left their home culture, it’s probably a reflection of the fact that their actions were dreamed up in an era when an unmediated experience of otherness was becoming an increasingly difficult endeavor. One decade later, as smart phones and social networking services allow home life to play an even larger role in travel to far-flung parts of the world, keeping open to the nuances of one’s host culture is an ever more complicated challenge.