A Week In Books: On the beach

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The Independent Culture

In spirit if not in setting, fiction inspired by holidays tilts towards the upmarket end of the trade. Even those cheerful beach-based romances clad in ice-cream jackets will shift, mid-plot, into the great Romantic motifs of quest, choice and self-discovery. Standard-issue ChickLit has this in common with Woolf or Forster: the voyage out diverts to become a voyage within the hero/ine. That cherished room with a view ends up as more of a mirror than an observation-post.

Whether on budget air-hops or in a chauffered limo, we travel under the flag of Romantic hopes and dreams - a history shrewdly explored last year by Alain de Botton is his The Art of Travel. Perhaps this introspective bias makes for more cogent, satisfying novels. It does, all the same, mean that most writers overlook vast tracts of the modern tourist landscape. Since we don't any longer do military service, and even huge employers now try to act small, holiday transit offers (along with some NHS hospitals) instant entry into a theme-park of 19th-century people-control. Even if you shun the perfectly named "package" experience of barracks hotels and dragooned excursions, an assault-course of punishing queues, checks and interrogations hauls you back into the world of the Victorian conscript or factory-hand.

Did the late philosopher of social coercion, Michel Foucault, ever write about the tyranny of the airport-hotel-beach apparatus? He should have done, as fiction-writers seldom bother - even when holiday destinations lend them both their colour and content. I've never understood why Finding Yourself should count as a perennial topic, but not the (often far more turbulent) business of Getting There.

There are some splendid exceptions. You can read much of J G Ballard, with his eerie terminal beaches and hotels from hell, as one extended commentary on the dystopian aspect of mass tourism. The first part of Alex Garland's The Beach brushed against this theme. Alan Warner (whose novel Morvern Callar updated the Forsterian quest for the Ibiza crowd) did have a savagely comic piece about a cheap flight to Spain in Granta's Best-of-Young-British selection.

Then, last year, we had the English translation of Michel Houellebecq's Platform: the ultimate holiday-wrecking novel, with its superbly rancid reflections on the sun-and-flesh trade, topped off with an Islamist massacre of Western sex tourists in Thailand. That book's twisted genius makes the triviality of Houellebecq's short squib Lanzarote (translated by Frank Wynne; Heinemann, £9.99) all the more disappointing - just like some ill-chosen last-minute break.

The arid, charmless volcanic rockscape of Lanzarote, with its arid, charmless vacationers, should have proved classic Houellebecq terrain. Instead, in this perfunctory story-cum-essay, the middle-aged French enfant terrible revisits his major landmarks with a laziness that borders on fatuity. So we get some lesbian action on the beach, watched by our wan voyeur of a narrator; some silly Muslim-baiting, pitched between earnestness and irony; some vague apocalyptic doodling as a gloomy Belgian policeman joins an erotic cult.

The sad thing about Houellebecq's dereliction is that novels of substance remain to be written about tourism in the Canaries and the Costas, the Maldives and Caribbean: any location where the mass production of "happiness" now shapes a society. And one way to upgrade TravelFiction might be for writers to lavish as much care on the locals' lives as the visitors'. Houellebecq, by the way, does admire something about Lanzarote: the "dignity and reserve" of the islanders. In other words, they have nothing to say.