The Beach by Alex Garland
“Subconscious Thought Leads to Conscious Action”

(Essay date 3 June, 2008) (In this essay, D.H. examines Alex Garland’s use of the subconscious state, in its relation to consciousness. Also, D.H. claims that an over-active imagination can drive one’s actions, oftentimes to that person’s detriment. Excerpts and quotations from Garland’s text are used to support these assertions.)

In a tumultuous post-Vietnam world of uncertainty, people often wandered lost in search of an identity; more likely than not, this identity would never be found. These soul-searchers dubbed themselves “travelers”. They saw themselves as more refined and more sentimental than average vacationers. “Travelers” were in their early twenties, known as the “generation X”. These “gen x’ers”, as they became known, were infamous for their rebellious dispositions and unorthodox practices of sleeping together before marriage, drug use, atheism, and disrespecting authority. This was a generation marked by a desire to be different; they were driven by impulses of self-fulfillment and discovery. They were in a constant and unchanging state of inner-turmoil. Plagued by doubt and yearning for answers, the young adults of this time period unwittingly developed hyper-active imaginations. In the search for a shred of truth, they allowed their subconscious and unconscious thoughts to directly effect their actions, for what formulated in their brains made more sense than the reality they often faced.

Alex Garland’s debut novel, The Beach, focuses on the aforementioned affliction. The book delves deep into my thesis, and proves that one’s thoughts are the ultimate impetus for one’s actions. The main character, Richard, is a traveler. He embarks on a journey through urban Thailand, in hopes of finding meaning, purpose. Upon his travels, he happens upon a secret island; this island is a utopia of sorts, and is commonly referred to as Eden. After witnessing brutal suicides, violent deaths, and sheer terror of other means, he begins his descent into the abyss of insanity. In the beginning, his psychosis is evident in its first stages through his vividly graphic and disturbing dreams. As the story progresses, these dreams begin to subtly morph into reality, at which point his insanity is at its nadir. It becomes evident to the reader that Richard’s dreams and hallucinations not only impact his actions, but drive them entirely.

Richard’s first “dream” was in part one, on page sixty. This passage opens with “I wouldn’t call it a dream. Nothing with Mister Duck was like a dream”. In this dream-like state, he encounters Mister Duck (the suicidal man who gave him the map to the secret island) for the first time since his death. The dream has a surreal quality, and in the dream, Richard is quite happy. In context, however, the dream is filled with gore and evokes horror. After waking up from the dream, or trance, Richard wrote a note to his friends on the back of the map to the island. He wrote, “Wait on Chaweng for three days. If we haven’t come back by then it means we’ve made it to the beach. See you there? Richard.” This note was written out of fear, it was his impulse reaction to being frightened by the dream; he did so without any thought as to the possible consequences. As will be mentioned later in this essay, this note eventually led to the destruction of the secret island; it caused death and ruin for those involved. Richard did not foresee any of these horrific consequences. He unknowingly allowed unconscious thought (his dream) and subconscious emotions (his fear) to alter physical reality. This is the first unambiguous example of how unconscious thought yielded deliberate action.

The second example of how unconscious thoughts can lead to conscious action is found on page seventy-five, still in part one. Asleep on their venture to the island, Richard was yet again dreaming, “I leaned over and kissed Francoise. She pulled away, or laughed, or shook her head, or closed her eyes and kissed me back. Etienne woke, clasping his mouth in disbelief.” This seemingly insignificant dream had little importance at the time, but the importance of the dream is discovered nearly two hundred pages later. This exact scene occurs nearly two hundred pages later, only then it is not a dream. Clearly Richard’s dream from page seventy-five impacted his actions. He acted without regard for Etienne’s (Francoise’s boyfriend) friendship, and based his actions on the emotions he felt while in that dream.

Another instance of a dream relating to reality is found on page eighty-eight. Upon reaching the island, Richard is asked, if he has been there before. He responds, “Sure I’ve been here before. In my dreams.” At surface level, this is nothing more than a ubiquitous sarcastic remark; when analyzed more closely, though, it becomes clear that it relates to the assertions made in this thesis, and further supports my findings. If the reader takes into account Garland’s notion that dreams relate to reality, then it becomes a much more meaningful statement. Easily overlooked, Garland works in subtlety…

For the first ninety-two pages of the story, the reader is led to believe that Richard’s nighttime encounters with Mister Duck are simply dreams, not in the least real. On page ninety-two, though, it is made clear that he is hallucinating, nor necessarily dreaming. In the passage on ninety-two, he is sick with a fever, so the reader assumes that the fever is the cause of the visual mirages. The distinction between reality and dream-state is quite blurred at this time. Nevertheless, this first semi-awake meeting with Mister Duck signifies Richard’s initial slip into insanity. In his encounters after this initial instance, it is clear that Richard is hallucinating, not dreaming; he is making his descent into paranoid insanity. This realization gives the reader a new perspective into Richard’s mental state. It is at this point that there is a transition from Richard’s dreams influencing his actions, to his imagination influencing his actions.

As a result of the stress that he suffered through, a post-traumatic-stress-syndrome of sorts, Richard begins to have visual and auditory hallucinations in which he interacts with the late Mister Duck. Richard is cognizant of the fact that Mister Duck exists only in his mind, but allows for and accepts his presence anyway. Whilst daydreaming one day (away from the secret beach, in Thailand gathering supplies for the island), Richard came across Mister Duck. In this vision, he witnessed Mister Duck horrifically kill himself, and then listened as Daffy talked about how he desired a proper funeral and burial, but he was destined to be incinerated and forgotten. After waking from this dream-like state, Richard opted to go for a walk to clear his head. He stumbles upon a young couple on the beach. The two appear to have overdosed on heroine; the girl is alive but unconscious, and the boy is dead, still. Keeping in mind his most recent encounter with Mister Duck, Richard hides the corpse of the dead boy to ease the girl’s pain upon waking. In this case, his dreams, or more specifically, his over-active imagination caused him to react a certain way to a situation, without truly considering the long-term consequences of his actions. The dead boy would never be found. His body, devoured by insects after several days, would rot and decay, never having received a proper burial. Both the boy’s family and his girlfriend would be distraught and confused when he never returned…But Richard considered none of this; he only acted based on a hallucination, an apparition. Yet again, Garland leaves it up to the reader to bridge the gap between the unconscious thoughts and the actions that result.

After a while, Richard started to rely on Daffy’s presence. He almost expected Daffy to guide him, and trusted him to gain information on the others on the island. Unfortunately for Richard, all of the information he gathered from Mister Duck was concocted in his own head, conjured out of his own hyper-active imagination. On page 201, Richard expresses his longing for Mister Duck’s presence, saying, “It would have been useful if Mister Duck had dropped by to see me that night, because I could have asked him to fill me in more on Bug’s character. Unfortunately he didn’t.” As the story progresses even further, Richard becomes increasingly comfortable with Mister Duck’s presence. He thought, “…I was already feeling pretty comfortable with Mister Duck’s presence. And by the end of the second, I realized I was quite pleased with it.” (page 325).
Richard became reliant and dependent on a figment of his imagination; he based his own conscious decisions on advice from someone who did not actually exist, other than in his mind. Clearly here his hyper-active imagination took complete control over his being.

After Mister Duck accompanied Richard on one of his missions, and nearly ruined it for him and blew his cover, Richard grew angry with him. Frustrated and irked, Richard became more and more discontented with the presence of Daffy. This frustration soon led to anger, anger at his own insanity. This anger found its focus on Karl, the other insane man on the island. Richard (though it was never directly mentioned, it must be inferred) saw similarities between himself and Karl, which maddened him to no end. When he was ordered to kill Karl (because Karl was considered a drain on their “perfect” society), he hesitated only slightly, then accepted the task. He did not want to draw unnecessary attention to his own mental instabilities, so he sought to take Karl’s life. Here, his anger at Mister Duck from his visions, translated into anger at himself for allowing Mister Duck to exist. Karl was the unfortunate recipient of this pent-up rage. Richard’s anger at a figment of his imagination led him to want to kill another living human being.

The most pivotal point in the novel, perhaps, is upon Richard’s realization that everything in life had to come to an end eventually. In a discussion with Mister Duck, Richard finally understood that the “utopian” life he was living was certain to end. Referring to the island as Vietnam, making a parallel, he said, “The only thing that I could be sure of was that if Vietnam was heading for a bitter end, I was too. Past that I couldn’t be sure of anything. Working through the possibilities, the areas in which the end might come were as good as infinite. As an infantryman, all it might take was an ill-advised command from my CO. One that pushed my luck in the DMZ, one I accepted against my better instincts. Equally, it might come from random bad luck. The same luck that jammed a soldier’s M16 at the wrong time could make me slip as I jumped from the waterfall. But knowing Mister Duck as I did, I realized that these were not the threats that scared me most. They were real enough, but they didn’t have his nightmare hallmark. When he spoke about a bitter end, deep down I knew he only meant one thing. The VC. The Fall of Saigon.” (pg382.) Upon coming to the conclusion that the beach’s age of prosperity would soon be on its decline into the heart of failure, Richard felt great fear. He realized that he was vulnerable, and decided to leave the island. All of his actions from this point until the end were based off of what Mister Duck told him. “As the idea of leaving came into my head, another idea had sneaked inside with it. That maybe this was the way it could all end up. Not in some VC dope guard attack and a panic stricken evacuation from the clearing, but with a simple demobilization of forces. After all, this was the way Vietnam ended for a lot of American soldiers. Most American soldiers. Statistics were on my side, I’d have played by Mister Duck’s rules, and I’d be out in one piece.” (pg 391.) He listened to Mister Duck, and opted to leave. Not fleeting and causing panic, but simply resigning to enter a different point in his life, away from the beach—all of this because of what his over-active imagination conjured.

After deciding to leave, and making all of the essential preparations for their exodus, Mister Duck visited him again. This time, all Daffy spoke was, “The horror. The horror. The horror.” Then he vanished. Scared by what Mister Duck had meant, and unsure of his intent, Richard decided to leave earlier and more hastily than originally planned. Without even having a legitimate reason, he risked exposure because of two words uttered by Mister Duck; he risked his life in a frantic fear caused by his over-active imagination.

Finally, when the conclusion of the story is reached, the island “paradise” is destroyed. Richard’s map from the beginning brought more people to the hidden beach. These newcomers ran into trouble with the drug lords inhabiting the other half of the island; the drug lords assumed that the two groups of travelers were associated, and killed the newcomers. They then proceeded to brutalize the inhabitants of the beach, and the blame fell on Richard for leaving his old friends the map. The dope guards jumped to conclusions based upon their own insecurities and paranoia, their imaginations ran wild, and in those several moments of uncertainty, they made rash decisions—rash decisions based on conclusions drawn from their own imaginations. The leaving of the map, a seemingly inconsequential action made out of fear caused by a dream, led to the island’s ultimate demise, and led to the deaths of seven people. The map killed seven, but as for everyone associated with the island, it changed their lives forever.

Alex Garland is a literary genius and a brilliant storyteller. He weaves a complex web of intersecting plots with quirky and unique characters. The story alone, read at face value, a surface level, is enough to be enjoyed. By reading the story more closely, it becomes clear that it is a commentary on how the subconscious and unconscious states relate to consciousness, an analysis of how imagination and dreams can be the primary impetus for human action. Oftentimes, dreams seem to make more sense than reality. People frequently turn to their dreams and imaginations for answers to the riddles that life alone can simply not answer. Particularly in the generation X age of uncertainty and doubt, youths looked toward anything that could give them conclusions, answers to their questions. They sought refuge in their own minds, as many people still do today. In the desperate quest for answers, an over-active imagination can be developed subconsciously as a means by which to hopefully find said answers. Alex Garland ingeniously depicts the fault of acting based on impulse, and shows that conscious thought is required along with conscious action; one should not exist without the other. He brutally and bluntly exposes this flaw inherent in human nature, leaving it up to the reader what to do with that knowledge.

(D.H. 2008)

The Tesseract by Alex Garland
“A Narrative Collage: Is it Beyond Your Comprehension?”

[(essay dated 8 June, 2008) In the following essay, D.H. analyzes the nature of the tesseract, the 4-dimensional hypercube that is beyond human comprehension, and how it relates to human interconnectivity. D.H. explains how the novel by Alex Garland is, in fact, a metaphor for a tesseract. D.H. explains that through his use of extensive subplots, Alex Garland relates human existence to the fourth dimension. Both Garland’s structural style and his subtle clues throughout the novel are indicative of this reference. ]

Before explaining the novel’s relation to a tesseract, first it is important to understand exactly what a tesseract is. The tesseract is to the cube, as the cube is to the square. Allow me to explain: A point is considered a hypercube. A point is of dimension zero. If one moves this point one unit in length, a line segment is formed. A line segment is of the first dimension. If this line segment is swept out the length of itself in a direction perpendicular to itself, it creates a square if done to each line segment as a new one is created. The square is two dimensional. When the same translations are performed on each line segment that comprises the square, it becomes a cube. The cube is three-dimensional. And finally, when the volumes of the cube are swept out, it becomes a tesseract. The tesseract is a four-dimensional entity. Since humans live in a three-dimensional world, it is impossible for humans to fathom the fourth dimension, or the tesseract. By simple principle, it exists. We, as humans, know of its existence, but do not have the ability to comprehend this knowledge. Humans cannot understand the tesseract itself, but it becomes clearer as it is unraveled (from tesseract, to cube, to square, to line segment, to point).

In Garland’s novel The Tesseract, the relationship between the overall plot and the numerous subplots embodies characteristics similar to a 4-dimensional hypercube, or tesseract. The novel is a narrative collage of sorts, and encompasses numerous shifts in time, speaker, and perspective. This novel was written in four parts; the first three parts are subplots following a day in the life of three separate, completely unrelated people. The fourth and final section (entitled “the tesseract”) is the convergence of these three groups of people, in a cataclysmic finale. In order to fully understand the meaning of this essay, a brief summary of each section is required: In part one, Sean, a paranoid and nervous shipyard representative waits anxiously for the arrival of Don Pepe, the infamous mafia boss. Sean waits in a seedy hotel room, stressing over Don Pepe’s arrival; he finally arrives at the conclusion that Don Pepe wants to kill him. Upon the mafia group’s arrival, Sean panics and shoots Don Pepe, and proceeds to flee the scene. Two of Pepe’s henchmen join in the chase. There is then a shift to part two of the novel. Part two focuses on a woman named Rosa, a doctor living in the wealthy suburbs surrounding Manila. Rosa’s section is riddled with flashbacks to remembrances of her first love. The memories of this first love seem to cast a shadow of doubt over the love for her husband at times. Though she is an established doctor, she seems unable to heal her own hurting heart. After minor conflicts with her children and mother, she receives a phone call from her husband, Sonny. Sonny tells her that two kids threw nails under his car tires as a prank, and he now had a flat as a result; he would be late for dinner. In this section, the pursuers of the chase from part one clash with Rosa. Sean barges into her house, and the gun-toting mafia members follow (at this point, it is unclear that the two incidents are related. The invaders of the house are unknown to the reader.). So ends section two…Section three focuses on two young homeless boys named Vincente and Totoy, and their psychologist acquaintance, Alfredo. These are the two boys that threw the nails under Sonny’s tires. The two young boys eventually end up joining the pursuit of Sean, in hopes of exciting their usually dull lives. The two end up arriving at Rosa’s house along with Sean, and Don Pepe’s two men. The fourth and final part of the novel is the ultimate convergence of these three paths. Through a complex, intersecting metaphysical web, the three parties come together for the first time at Rosa’s house, in a disastrous and fateful ending to the novel.

As evident by that summary of the novel, the book itself is representative of a tesseract. Each individual storyline is representative of the different parts of the tesseract (the point, line, square, etcetera…), and the final concluding section is the tesseract itself. Without reading and understanding the subplots and previous sections, the concluding convergence of the three sets of characters makes no sense. Once the segments are dissected and digested, the ending becomes clearer, though the reasons for all of it are still murky. The book is a commentary on the interconnectivity of human life. Life is always interrelated, and is thus often changed in ways that are impossible to foresee. Sean had no intentions of barging into a stranger’s (Rosa’s) house and taking part in a gunfight that took her mother’s life. Rosa never foresaw that either, until her seemingly routine day was interrupted by gunshots and broken windows. Sonny, Rosa’s husband, certainly never expected to come home late to the aftermath of a gunfight at his house, with dead bodies scattered over his kitchen floor. Vincente and Totoy never expected to be used as human shields in a gunfight in an upscale part of the city they had never even been to before. Don Pepe certainly did not expect to get shot dead, and his henchmen never intended to become part of a felony-worthy chase, which ended up with multiple people dead. All of these events, told separately from different perspectives, came together violently in the concluding scene. By telling the same story from different perspectives, Garland was able to successfully depict the characters’ ignorance and lack of foresight; the effect of this being: the reader easily saw how events were unfolding, but knew that the characters in the story did not. The tesseract is a metaphor for the characters' inability to understand the causes behind the events which shape their lives; they can only visualize the superficial world they inhabit, and they can only understand what affects them directly—they remain blind to the indirect.

The novel’s structure is a microcosmic representation of human existence. It is a statement on how humans can only see what directly affects their lives, and not what causes certain changes. Human beings remain blind and ignorant to the fact that their actions shape others’ lives, completely unwittingly and unintentionally. Without giving thought to hidden ramifications, people act on impulse, doing what they perceive to be good for them, without regard for the fact that those actions will have consequences, and how those consequences will have ramifications on other parties. Those parties affected by the aforementioned actions will then act based upon their new circumstance(s). The cycle continues…Garland’s statement here is that this nature is inevitable; like a tesseract, it is impossible to fully understand the effects of our actions. And it is also impossible to fully understand the actions of others that shape our lives. We must simply acknowledge that these actions do exist, and that all actions will have consequences, whether we see them or not, just like we must acknowledge that the tesseract exists without being able to understand it.

Garland not only draws the parallel to a tesseract through his use of subplots and structure, he also throws in subtle hints throughout the book. These hints are easily overlooked the first time through, but their meanings become clearer after completion of the novel.

The first important textual reference to human interconnectivity is found early on. Sean is sitting in the hotel room, taking in the sensory details, absorbing his surroundings. “…Connections. The telephone, the bloodstained sheets, and the peephole. The three things came out of nowhere; they were non sequiturs. But nothing comes out of nowhere, and non sequiturs don’t exist. There had to be a connection.” Sean contemplates the different possible explanations for the blood-stained sheets, the covered peephole, and the unplugged, broken telephone. He acknowledges that there is interconnectivity, and that these anomalies are not simply random nor are they meaningless. He says that non sequiturs do not exist; by this logic, everything has an explanation, and everything in life is provoked or initiated by something else. Not only does Sean’s realization further Garland’s point, but so do Sean’s subsequent actions. After considering the different possible explanations for the peephole, phone, and blood, Sean begins to panic; he is fearful that Don Pepe had killed in this room before, fearful that he will be the next victim. Determined not to go down like the last victim, he shoots Don Pepe and flees the hotel. This starts the chase which ultimately brought Sean, Rosa, and Vincente and Totoy together.

Another textual hint of Garland’s theme is found several pages later. Sean is thinking about a girl’s photo that he keeps with him at all times. This photo is a keepsake for him, and helps to calm him down. “…The tough times she helped him through. The way she had of relaxing him, coaxing him out of trouble.” Sean never met this girl though, he simply found her picture on the ground near a passport photo booth in Le Havre. This girl’s action of accidentally dropping her photo proved serendipitous for Sean. She unknowingly impacted Sean’s life greatly, for he finds comfort and serenity in looking at her photo. Without her having dropped this photo, Sean would have had trouble calming himself down and thinking clearly. His actions would have been completely different without his “good luck charm”. Following Garland’s principle, Sean’s altered actions would have had completely different ramifications for other people, causing them to react differently, and so on and so forth…
“The light caresses on his neck were starting to burn a little, and more itches were springing up elsewhere. On the small of his back, on the back of his thighs, his scalp, his wrists, his stomach. Each one kicking off another. Sean wondered: Is this what happens when you miss a scratch? Let an itch go, then suddenly you’re dealing with an avalanche. Your whole life, fending off avalanches with a rub of your fingernails here and there, unaware you’re doing it.”
This passage is yet another metaphor for interconnectivity and consequential reaction. The itches he speaks of are things within one’s life that need to be dealt with. Scratching those itches is like taking care of them, or taking action. Regardless of if one scratches an itch or not (takes action or not), more itches will always appear (more problems/issues will arise). Then more scratching, and more itches--it is cyclical. A crucial part of this passage is the last phrase, where he says, “…unaware you’re doing it.” Garland continually stresses the notion that people are unaware of the indirect results of their actions.

Another hidden metaphor for the tesseract can be found in a description of the rural lifestyle in which Rosa grew up.
“A hard rural life, but a resolutely siesta atmosphere—even the thud of a fisherman’s homemade dynamite or a metal screech from the sawmill seemed distant and unobtrusive. The only real disturbances in the barrio were occasional alcohol-fueled brawls and the late summer typhoons, which would rip through the nipa huts, turn coconuts into cannonballs, and bring high tides that could suck palm trees down in their wake.”
This passage is a narrative about the problems of living in the rural barrio. Of course, this passage is much more than a simple description—it is a metaphor for the nature of consequence, and the human ignorance that surrounds the events that shape their lives. The thud of a fisherman’s dynamite and the screeching metal at the sawmill represent distant events or actions that shape one’s life, most likely actions by other people. We, as people, are too ignorant to see how these events will affect us; that is why they are described as “seemingly distant and unobtrusive”. They seem of little importance, but in actuality they have life-altering potential. The alcohol-fueled brawls and summer typhoons represent the events that directly affect the speaker. These are the life-altering events that are noticed. Much like the nature of a tesseract, people are able to see the little things, the pieces, the direct results, but fail to comprehend what causes them, or what they in turn may cause. Humans can see in three dimensions, for that is the realm that they are directly in contact with; humans cannot see, however, the tesseract (or the fourth dimension), for the knowledge of its existence is second-hand and indirect.

Through the character of Alfredo, the psychologist who conducts human research studies based off of the dreams of Vincent and Totoy (and other “street children”), Garland directly characterizes his ideologies and summarizes the book’s concepts. Alfredo seems to acknowledge the finite limits of the human brain. He says, “Some questions, even simple questions, have complicated answers. Some things are too complicated to be easily expressed.” This is his response when Vincente asks him “what is light?” Clearly, his answer is a reference to the tesseract. When read in the context of referring to the fourth dimension, he is basically saying, ‘Sometimes, you must simply accept that answers exist, without trying to explore them too deeply,’ as in accepting that a tesseract exists, even though it is unfathomable. Alfredo later says, in direct reference to a tesseract, “A hypercube is a thing you are not equipped to understand... This means something... We can see the thing unraveled but not the thing itself.” This quotation is basically a candid insight into Garland’s own thoughts. It is unambiguous and completely blunt. Life is something people are not equipped to understand…People can see life in pieces and direct segments, but not the larger picture of what causes said segments to exist, and the indirect effects of the aforementioned pieces.

The Tesseract by Alex Garland is an incredibly deep and complex novel. Its out-of-sequence plot and multiple perspectives make it a challenging and at times frustrating read, but its themes and concepts are even more thought-probing. How does one describe something that is beyond the limits of human comprehension? Quite simply, by characterizing it. Garland not only describes the tesseract through a story, but uses that story to relate human life and existence to a four-dimensional hypercube. Garland works in a series of metaphors: the book is a metaphor for a tesseract, and a tesseract is metaphorical for human life. Transitively, the book represents all of human life, human existence, and human nature. Through a brilliantly crafted story, Garland portrays the interconnectivity of life, the unforeseen and unpredictable nature of consequence, and the limits of the human mind: “We can see the thing unraveled, but not the thing itself.”

(D.H. 2008)