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Garland, Alex


Nationality: English. Born: London, England, 1970. Education: Attended Manchester University. Awards: Betty Trask prize, 1998. Address: c/o Putnam Publishing Group, 200 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10026, U.S.A.



The Beach. New York, Riverhead Books, 1997.

The Tesseract. New York, Riverhead Books, 1999.

* * *

Alex Garland creates exotic entertainments that have inspired comparisons to the work of Graham Greene and even Joseph Conrad with their mix of psychological exploration, moral conundrum, and suspenseful plotting. If these comparisons seem a bit generous, they can be seen as the natural consequence of Garland's phenomenal commercial success.

The Beach is a dystopian fantasy rooted in the very rootlessness of contemporary society. It is narrated by a young drifter whose affectless voice masks deep dissatisfactions and troubling, all-too-human drives. When he finds and joins other western culture refugees in a secret island commune off the coast of Thailand, this narrator proves to be the catalyst who ignites an emotional conflagration that destroys their idyll.

The Beach is a familiar tale of a perfected community raised by noble aspirations and felled by basic human failings, a tale whose most notable modern example is William Golding's Lord of the Flies, which has also been cited as a discernible precursor to Garland's work, although The Beach, for all its dead-on critiques of contemporary life, lacks Golding's primal resonance. Where Lord of the Flies plumbed the inherent barbarities of human nature, The Beach merely depicts humanity's pervasive pettiness. Indeed, one of the most telling and consequential conflicts in The Beach concerns two characters' claims over which of them is the discoverer of a wild mango orchard. Such a conflict might have serious import if starvation were at stake, as it is in Lord of the Flies, but The Beach is set in a geographic cornucopia of edible flora and fauna, so that the largest consequence of this argument is the loss of dessert and, of course, pride. Another misunderstanding stems from a chaste kiss given to a sick girl, a strangely immature dilemma given the ages of the commune-dwellers and the fact that they all came to this place to ostensibly escape the bounds of society. In fact, of all the appetites given free rein in the commune, the libidinous is hardly even mentioned. As The Beach concludes, the prevailing question is not so much how such a perfect place could be so terribly dismantled; it is how such a place ever got built at all.

In The Tesseract Garland creates a more complex and more ambitious narrative that still contains enough taut pacing to be packaged, like The Beach, as a thriller. Unlike its predecessor, however, The Tesseract eschews first-person, linear narration. Instead, Garland constructs and interweaves four separate narrative lines that come together in a violent and nihilistic climax. Set in the Philippines, The Tesseract involves a drugged-out English sailor, a Filipino mafioso and his henchmen, a doctor waiting for her husband to come home, a pair of street-urchins, and a grieving psychologist who studies dreams, all in a chase plot lifted right out of hard-boiled pulp.

In terms of craft, The Tesseract represents a more formal mode for Garland, as its narration jumps from character to character, often looping back in time to provide context and characterization. Where The Beach offered oblique commentary on contemporary life through its characters' use of pop-culture metaphors (the Vietnam War as a movie, death as the end of a video game), The Tesseract has a more overt message linked to its title, which refers to a type of shape that is the two-dimensional representation of something that exists in four dimensions, a mathematical construct called a hypercube. As Alfredo, the psychologist, tellingly muses about the shape's significance, Garland makes him an embedded critic of the novel itself, thinking, "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." In The Tesseract 's climax, this thought is meant to have a kind of prophetic resonance, but it comes off as a redundancy, given Garland's masterful construction itself.

J.J. Wylie

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