Nov 16, 2012

Book Review: The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum (1980)

The Bourne Identity is the perfect spy novel. Not the perfect novel, mind you (it’s got some definite flaws), but the perfect spy novel.* It’s also probably more responsible even than the James Bond books for making me a fan of the genre. I first read it in sixth grade—the same year I discovered Bond. (I suppose I was a late bloomer in that respect.) Up until then, I’d been voraciously devouring Hardy Boys books. Then my Aunt Joan gave me a pair of Robert Ludlum novels for Christmas (the other one was The Gemini Contenders), and my life was forever changed. I was absolutely transfixed by this exciting world of assassins and spies and Swiss banks and fiches confidentielles and gunfights and car chases through faraway European streets. And I was utterly absorbed by the twistiest, cleverest, most intricate plot my hungry young mind had yet encountered. That plot probably attracted me most of all. Sure, I fully appreciated the escapist aspects of the genre—particularly those faraway, exotic European cities. But I skipped the phase of wanting to be a spy. From the moment I read The Bourne Identity, I wanted to write about spies. What other genre lent itself to plots so ingeniously complex? My steady diet of Franklin W. Dixon was suddenly interspersed with regular doses of Ludlum (the brick-like paperbacks comically thick compared to the slim Hardy Boys Casefiles), John Gardner (whose Bond novels at the time were easier to come by than his predecessor’s), and, when I could find them, Ian Fleming (the initial thirst simply to get my hands on every book led directly to my appetite for collecting the first editions and various paperback runs).

Then, eventually, sometime in high school as I became exposed to more and more great literature, I developed that literary snobbishness common in avid readers of that age. While nothing would ever take away the enjoyment his books had given me upon first reading them, I became dismissive of Ludlum as a writer. For years (right up until the early days of this blog, I’m ashamed to admit), I snarkily reflected that I had gone directly from Hardy Boys to Ludlum, and that the quality of the prose hadn’t changed, just the amount of sex and violence and complexity of the plots. How wrong I was, colored by that sad superiority that tends to accompany the transition from adolescence into adulthood. Upon re-reading Ludlum as an adult, I find far more appreciation for his prose than I owned up to in those days of pretentious folly. He’s a far better writer than the vast majority of his modern imitators who fill up today’s bestseller lists.

That said, The Bourne Identity is not his best written book. (That would probably be The Chancellor Manuscript.) The dialogue is atypically clunky at times (what couples repeatedly refer to each other as “my love, my love, my only love?”), the romance is forced at first (only the events that drive the couple together; after that the relationship between Bourne and Marie is actually one of the better pairings in the genre), and some subplots are forgotten about and left unresolved. But none of that for one instant affects the furious pace with which readers are propelled from page to page, because The Bourne Identity boasts far and away Ludlum’s most ingenious premise and most ingenious plot. And the two things should not be mistaken, as they were in the Matt Damon movies.

The simple premise** is: A man is pulled from the sea riddled with bullets and without a memory. His quest to find his identity leads to disturbing implications that he might be an assassin. That premise in itself is brilliant enough that it’s been repurposed in countless other films and stories (including The Long Kiss Goodnight, XIII and Noir) to the point that assassins and amnesia have become almost inseparable in popular culture, and that it managed to serve as the entire plot (not just premise) for the blockbuster series of Matt Damon Bourne movies. That’s a shame, though, because Ludlum’s actual plot is far more complex and far more interesting. In the Damon films, the man with amnesia discovers that he was an assassin and is appalled. In the Ludlum book, the hero keeps discovering new information about himself. At first, the clues point toward his being an assassin, then toward something else, then back toward assassin, then toward a secret agent pretending to be an assassin, then back to assassin (and an even worse one at that), and eventually towards a far, far more complex background than the films ever explore. I feel like I could support my thesis better here if I could go into detail about those layers, but I would hate to spoil the discovery for first-time readers of the book who are familiar only with the dumbed-down simplicity of the film’s story. Suffice it to say, the truth of Bourne’s identity in the book is far more interesting, more rewarding and more morally complex than in the movies, and it’s a shame that the films didn’t follow Ludlum’s template. And the secretive Treadstone program of Ludlum’s covert world is infinitely more fascinating (and possibly disturbing) than the mere super- soldier factory it's presented as in the films.

The hero of Ludlum’s novel is pulled from the Mediterranean and treated by a benevolent but drunken English doctor named Washburn. He has no memory, and the only clue to his identity (besides the bullets the doctor pulled out of him) is the number of a Swiss bank account implanted under his skin. There’s also evidence that he’s undergone significant plastic surgery. Why? Who is he? What was he? To answer these questions, the patient ventures to Zurich by way of Marseilles, hoping the bank account will hold the answers he’s looking for. Along the way he discovers that he’s an exceptionally skilled fighter, that he’s fluent in several languages, and that people he doesn’t know want him dead. The Zurich account does provide him with a name, Jason Bourne, and a great deal of money (millions and millions), but ultimately it raises more questions than it answers. It also triggers something called a fiche confidentielle (a phrase that always stuck with me), alerting mysterious other parties of his transaction. One of these parties doesn’t want him to leave the bank alive, and a gunfight breaks out. Bourne barely escapes.

Suddenly on the run, Bourne relies on instincts he doesn’t quite understand and certainly doesn't approve of. Following such an instinct, he finds himself taking a hostage in order to get out of a bad situation. That hostage is Canadian economist Marie St. Jacques. At first she’s understandably terrified of her captor, but after he returns to save her from being raped by one of the mysterious killers on his trail when he could have fled, she changes her opinion of Jason Bourne. Suddenly, she wants to help the man who kidnapped her. While the germ of their relationship seems somewhat improbable, the actual relationship that develops is quite strong, and Marie proves not only to be Ludlum’s best female character up to that point, but also one of the best female characters in the male-dominated genre of spy fiction as it stood in 1980. Whereas previous Ludlum love interests were little more than damsels in distress (and frequently referred to by the male characters as “the girl”), Marie is a successful economist and smarter than Bourne. She isn’t just along for the ride; he couldn’t get out of his mess without her deductions and intuitions. In fact, she’s usually a step ahead of him, and if he would only listen to her ideas at several points in the story, he could extract himself from a bad situation with far more ease and far less bloodshed.

Bourne himself is a fascinating character as well. For a blank slate, he has quite a lot of personality. While he may have amazing combat skills—armed and unarmed—he is far from a suave know-it-all. In fact, he’s prone to fits of despair at his predicament, and has a tendency to always embrace the worst-case scenario. He frequently relies on nasty sarcasm to cope with nightmare situations that seem uncopable. Without Marie’s support, it’s doubtful he’d ever succeed at discovering his identity, or staying alive.

Also in the mix is the elusive real-life assassin/terrorist Carlos (later known as “Carlos the Jackal”). Various clues indicate that Bourne may have been hunting him, working for him, or competing with him in his pre-amnesia life. Whatever the case, it’s clear now that Carlos wants him dead, and he has a vast network of informants and thugs who will stop at nothing to carry out their master’s wishes. This is another area in which the book is infinitely superior to the film version. In Carlos, the book has a villain. The film is lacking one, and falls instead on the genre crutch/cliché of an evil CIA out to get its own agents. The CIA operatives in the book, like all parties concerned in this affair, are painted with shades of gray—not black or white.

Bourne’s journey of self-discovery takes him from the secretive banks of Zurich to the fashion houses and political circles of the Paris elite to the upscale brownstones of New York City where shadowy government officials hold secret meetings well outside of Washington. The book is a page-turner in the truest sense, packed with exciting fights, chases and escapes along with out-of-date but nonetheless riveting tips on tradecraft and secret banking (though Ludlum, who was adverse to fetishizing or even naming guns, makes that all too common mistake of repeatedly outfitting revolvers with silencers). But the primary engine propelling readers to furiously turn pages is not the action or even the characters, but that plot. Layer after layer after layer is peeled away, revealing an intelligence operation every bit as ingenious as that in le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. The Bourne Identity is Spy Writing 101, and absolutely essential reading for students of the genre. And, on top of that, it’s a hell of a read. There’s a reason it stayed with me all these years, and re-read today it still holds up as one of my very favorite spy novels.

Now all that's left is to apply the LTA, or Ludlum Title Analyzer, designed to parse out the rigid "The Proper Name Noun" formula and determine which titles make sense for the story they relate to, and which were generically generated in a panic to fit the formula.

Is the main character named Bourne? Yes! No. Um, sort of. It's complicated, but it's definitely relevant!
Is there an Identity? There certainly is!

The title fits, and I'd go so far as to suggest it's Ludlum's best.

*Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy manages to be both.
**This premise actually owes something to Phillip K. Dick’s 1966 short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” though the movie based on that story, Total Recall, in turn owes a lot to Ludlum's novel.

The Ludlum Dossier
Read my DVD review of The Holcroft Covenant (1986) here.
Read my book review of The Janson Directive (2002) here.
Read my book review of The Bourne Supremacy (1986) here.
Read my book review of The Holcroft Covenant (1978) here.
Read my book review of The Bourne Identity (1980) here.
Read my book review of The Sigma Protocol (2001) here.


Quiller said...

Another great review, Tanner. You said it on the Tinker, Tailor thread and you’re right on point – we do seem to think alike. Perhaps we can get our own sitcom where we play spy-fi geeks sharing an apartment while a beautiful woman lives across the hall. Call it “The Big Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang Theory.”

The Bourne Identity was not my first Ludlum – that was actually Supremacy, for reasons I can’t recall; I wasn’t as particular about reading series fiction in proper order in those days. It also wasn’t the novel that “converted” me to a Ludlum fan – that was The Osterman Weekend. I confess that it’s also not my favorite Ludlum, being edged out on that front by The Parsifal Mosaic, which I think is even better written, has a truly complex and haunted protagonist, and features an even more diabolical conspiracy at the center. But even before the film series, Identity was probably Ludlum’s best-known work, and deservedly so.

In terms of the larger arc of Ludlum’s career, Identity comes at an interesting moment. In 1980 he had been writing thrillers for almost a decade, since The Scarlatti Inheritance in 1971. With a few exceptions, he had used for his heroic protagonists the kind of “innocent man falsely accused” beloved of thriller masters like Hitchcock, as well as Eric Ambler and Helen MacInnes. John Tanner in Osterman, Noel Holcroft in The Holcroft Covenant, Peter Chancellor in The Chancellor Manuscript and James Matlock in The Matlock Paper are all essentially “ordinary” men; some of them have military experience, but none of them are “professionals” in any appreciable sense, and they all have to learn the spy business on the job, and on the run (none more so, I think, than Noel Holcroft). Then in 1979, with The Matarese Circle, Ludlum gives us two professional secret agents as protagonist – Brandon Scofield of Consular Operations and Vasili Taleniekov of the KGB. From then on, the majority of Ludlum’s protagonists of the 1980s and 1990s would be professionals.

The premise of Identity allows Ludlum to have his cake and eat it too; Jason Bourne as introduced is an “amateur” hero who turns out to be the ultimate professional, he just doesn’t realize it right away. In that sense it seems fair to call Identity a bridge between the two eras of Ludlum’s writing career, even if it comes after Matarese.

More to come in my next comment.

Quiller said...

I think your points about Ludlum’s writing style are well taken, and I’ll admit to going through a similar kind of disillusionment. Not so much with his prose or dialogue style, which I’ll deal with momentarily, but his seeming willingness to just make stuff up. I had started reading Ludlum after reading writers like Tom Clancy and Frederick Forsyth who went to considerable lengths to use correct intelligence and military terminology, and to describe the inner worlds of the CIA and other spy agencies accurately. Admittedly a lot of that information wasn’t readily available to the public when Ludlum started writing, but I nonetheless felt in a lot of Ludlum’s novels that the elaborate intelligence bureaucratic machinery he was describing just didn’t work that way – it seemed hokey, to say nothing of a perplexing use of taxpayer money.

Over time, though, I came to the realization that that sort of thing was just part of the world that Ludlum created in his novels, and that not all spy fiction is or should be intended as documentary realism. (Lord knows le Carre made up plenty of stuff – the SIS during the years le Carre was writing wasn't headquartered anywhere near Cambridge Circus, and if you’ve ever been there, which I have, you’ll know why.) In recent years I’ve come to appreciate how spy fiction can serve as a metaphor for real-world issues, and how a good thriller can dramatize the undercurrents of current events and international politics.

As for Ludlum’s writing style, I find it a case of inconsistency more than anything else, and of taking the good with the bad. It’s entirely true that Ludlum’s prose and dialogue can seem as though it would have been excessive in a Gilded Age melodrama. But there are plenty of other times when his dialogue seems natural and unforced, and when his descriptions of places make you feel like he’s been there and formed some strong opinions. He was also capable of passages and lines that were almost poetic – I’ve always found a certain poignancy in a line spoken by the President in Parsifal, “We made him a god when we didn’t own the heavens.” In any case, considering that I’ve read pretty much everything the man ever wrote, whereas I still can’t force myself to finish anything by James Patterson, it’s fair to say that Ludlum is indeed a better writer than a lot of other players in the superthriller sweepstakes.

I’ll make one last point. I’ve always felt that the difference between Star Wars and Star Trek lies in the effect the respective sagas had on the people who loved them. Star Trek inspired people to become scientists, doctors, engineers, astronauts and inventors. Star Wars inspired people to become writers, directors, designers and special effects technicians. One isn’t necessarily better than the other; they just reach people in different ways. Now, I don’t think it works quite the same way in spy fiction – I can’t think of a writer of spy fiction whose work inspired people to become intelligence officers or analysts. But -- and this goes back to you and I thinking alike – Ludlum is a writer who can, and I suspect has, inspired people to become writers of spy fiction. Certainly he’s one of the writers who inspired me to do so.

Also, the LTA is hilarious. I’ve always loved Ludlum’s anecdote about how The Rhinemann Exchange came to have that title.

Tanner said...

Thanks, Quiller! I'm glad there's at least one other Ludlum fan out there. Le Carre posts always get quite a few comments, but is there no more love for Ludlum out there? If you haven't read him, I really do recommend it. Don't just rely on the movies.

But to your quite excellent points, Quiller...

1.) I'm down for the sitcom. But would anyone WATCH it...?

2.) I agree, Parsifal is wonderful. I think Matarese, Identity and Parsafal make up his greatest overall period. But Chancellor really impresses me on its own.

3.) That's an excellent point about Bourne being the perfect crossover hero from Everyman Hero to Professional Hero. I'm going to discuss those two breeds of Ludlum heroes further in some more of my reviews in this series (I think I already do in some that are now up), but that particular role that Bourne serves hadn't occurred to me, and it seems so obvious when you put it that way! (And when you reverse Matarese and Identity!) I am going to talk more about Bourne's own dichotomy in my Supremacy review, because I think it's interesting how he veers between Amateur and Professional in that one so much, like Jekyll and Hyde.

4.) I was never too bothered by Ludlum making stuff up. I liked the technical know-how Clancy conveyed, but Ludlum's plots were so creative that I could have cared less whether they rang true or not. (Though the silencer thing did always bother me a bit.) And he still sprinkled enough convincing tradecraft throughout his books to have me believing I could follow his advice and smuggle a gun in pieces across the Atlantic or get a perfect phony passport. (I forget now which one had the passport recipe. Bourne Ultimatum, maybe? Or Gemini Contenders? I haven't gotten around to re-reading either of those ones yet.)

5.) I love that comparison to Star Wars and Star Trek! Very apt. I guess we WOULDN'T know people who were inspired by spy fiction to become actual SPIES, but I DO know two different people (one of whom is a regular reader here) who were inspired by The Man From U.N.C.L.E. to pursue careers in law enforcement! Interesting. As for Ludlum inspiring writers, I DEFINITELY think that's true. I'd say Dan Brown is one of his most obvious acolytes (though not in his league), and I respect Brown for being totally open about Ludlum's influence. I'd say Lee Child also owes a bit to Ludlum, though I don't think I've ever seen him discuss it. (He's definitely more technically-oriented than RL ever was though.) Then again, literally half of the modern-day NY Times bestsellers owe a huge debt to Ludlum.