Feb 18, 2014

Book Review: The Bourne Ultimatum by Robert Ludlum (1990)

Is the hero named Bourne? For all intents and purposes.
Is there an Ultimatum? Hm… Not really, I guess. Sort of. More of a supremacy, but that’s already been used. Still, it’s a great title, so I won’t quibble.

After two fantastic entries (read my reviews here and here) in what ultimately became a trilogy, Robert Ludlum made a rare misstep with the third novel. The Bourne Ultimatum delivers the epic Bourne vs. Carlos payoff audiences have desired ever since the first book (in which American agent David Webb assumed the role of a deadly assassin known as Jason Bourne in order to ensnare the real assassin, Carlos the Jackal), but it fails to maintain the furious energy of the previous books in getting there. Too many coincidences, too much filler, and Ludlum’s weakest conspiracy (so half-baked it doesn’t even really fit in with the rest of the story) doom this final Bourne novel. However, it’s still a chance to spend time with characters we’ve grown to like and in whose fate we’re now invested, and we do—eventually—get a definitive and more or less satisfying conclusion to the plight of David Webb that began a decade earlier in Ludlum’s masterwork, The Bourne Identity. So The Bourne Ultimatum is certainly worth reading for fans of the series who have read the other two novels, but they must be braced for a bit of a letdown, comparatively.

Most of The Bourne Ultimatum’s fatal flaws are tied in with the fact that it’s simply too long. Ludlum’s novels grew longer and longer throughout the Eighties, but were usually so packed with twists and turns and slam-bang action that they generally earned that length. (See: The Bourne Supremacy.) With Ultimatum, however, it feels like he was struggling to equal the page count now expected of him, and augmented a decent central story with superfluous subplots that never entirely gel.

Thirteen years after the events of The Bourne Identity (which was published in 1980, but actually took place a few years earlier), David Webb’s worst fears have come true. Somehow, the Jackal has tracked him down. The assassin knows the identities of Webb’s two closest friends, retired CIA agent Alexander Conklin and Washington-based psychiatrist Dr. Morris Panov. He proves it by luring them to a trap at an amusement park, which makes for a terrific opening to the novel. They get away, but then that was the point. It conveys a message to Webb that will force him to surface: Carlos is close to discovering your true identity, and consequently the identities of your wife and children. (Webb’s wife, Marie, has been a main character in both previous books; their young children are new additions.)

Carlos is a very different character than he was in The Bourne Identity. In that he was truly scary: a believable psychopath charismatic enough to control an army of old men. (Carlos only trusts loyal veteran soldiers who are already close to death anyway.) In The Bourne Ultimatum, he’s a cartoon, a raving lunatic hell-bent on revenge at any cost. He even laughs maniacally as he guns down his own supporters, and if he had a mustache he’d definitely twirl it. I suspect that this change may have come about because Ludlum did not want to risk glorifying the real-life terrorist who formed the basis for his fictional namesake. In a 1986 interview* promoting the second novel in the series, he explained why he hadn’t included Carlos in that book’s plot. The real Jackal (whose life was chronicled in Olivier Ossayas' 2010 miniseries Carlos) was still at large, so he couldn’t have Bourne kill him off. But if he had the assassin escape once again, then he risked adding to his ill-gotten legend rather than tearing it down. By making his Carlos into a ludicrous Bond villain caricature in Ultimatum, the author got to take control of his fact-based creation. This Carlos was so far removed from the real one that Ludlum probably felt less compunction about engineering his demise, and in doing so was very careful not to glorify him at all. If those were the reasons, then they make sense. But they also make the character a far less appealing villain since he’s so ridiculously over the top.

To paraphrase a very complicated plot (and to attempt to make it make more sense than it does in the book), the introverted academic Webb reverts to his Mr. Hyde alter-ego, Jason Bourne, and packs Marie and the kids off to a not-so-secret island retreat they’ve established in the Caribbean so he can flush out the Jackal in America and kill him so as to eliminate the threat to his family. In doing this, he serendipitously stumbles upon a completely unrelated conspiracy involving the remnants of the Vietnam-era Black Ops program from whence he sprang, Medusa. His brilliant plan, in which even the brilliant strategist Conklin sees no flaw, is to shake the tree of this new Medusa so hard that they resort to hiring his old enemy, Carlos, to kill him. Now, Carlos already wants to kill him, so all this really accomplishes is getting a whole new powerful enemy to want him dead at the same time. And I’m not sure why Bourne automatically assumed that Medusa would go to Carlos to make this happen, because… well, in fact, they don’t! Instead they bring in the Mafia, who send their own best hitman after Bourne (apparently just to add to the parties chasing him).

Ludlum’s attempt to link the two plotlines together is just as ill-conceived as his character’s. They never successfully tie in with each other. Even when they finally appear to thanks to a surveillance photo showing Carlos and the leader of Medusa in one place, it turns out that that meeting was merely staged for the camera by a third party entirely ancillary to either storyline. (Don’t worry; I’m not giving anything away because that plot thread goes literally nowhere.) Meanwhile, what Ludlum himself describes as a “French farce” plays out in the Caribbean, involving two old men with similar names arriving on the island in quick succession. Like Bourne’s plan, what ensues there is far too reliant on coincidence—so much so that the author himself freely acknowledges it within the text with that “French farce” comparison!

Some of Ludlum’s more irksome traits as a writer are forgivable in better books, but become painfully annoying in lesser ones like this. As his page count ballooned in the late Eighties and particularly in the Nineties, he developed a tendency of repeating himself ad nauseam. Ludlum was always guilty of that to some degree (though it’s fair to assume that with books that long, readers might need the occasional in-story recap), but in The Bourne Ultimatum it’s simply egregious. Schemes are hatched and then instantly recapitulated. The entire plot to date is frequently summarized for each character not yet privy to all the details—usually after they annoyingly insist upon it.** Even individual sentences are repeated and unnecessarily drawn out at every opportunity. Characters frequently yell at one another that they don’t have time for this, and in doing so make everything take so much longer. And again and again and again, they ask, “What?” Seriously, “what” (in italics) seems like the most used word in this book. (That problem is exacerbated in the audio version by the otherwise unparalleled narrator Scott Brick saying it with the same sharp delivery on each occasion.) And every time someone asks, “What?” you can expect a lengthy recap of whatever was just said along with everything else that’s been said to date in the whole novel. Along those same lines, characters are also always asking for clarification of “spyspeak” and then verbosely berating the characters who used it for doing so—even when, in many cases, the character asking should have known the terminology himself! It all gets old fast. So do repeated or similar phrases.

At one point, Ludlum writes, “Then the impossible happened” and then, “Then the incredible happened” on the same page, before repeating the latter statement verbatim mere paragraphs later. The book could easily be half as long if an editor had simply struck through every repeated piece of information! (Or even a third of them.) Whereas audiences know the Bourne of the movies as a man of few words, the book version (here, anyway) never uses five of them when he can use fifty. Marie even calls him on it at one point, asking, “Why do you use twelve words when one would suffice?” Her husband lamely replies that it’s because he’s an academic… but takes far more words than that to say so. I’m not buying it, Ludlum!

Another Ludlum staple that serves him well in better books but becomes annoying here is the overuse of italicized phrases like, “Madness! It was madness!” and “Then, it happened!” (One of his favorite phrases.) The author has always done that, but in better books, it generally serves his narrative, and even when it doesn’t, it’s easier to overlook. The habit becomes much harder to overlook when it’s done with the regularity it is here.

Like Carlos’ mania, Bourne/Webb’s Jekyll and Hyde syndrome (explored quite wonderfully in The Bourne Supremacy) is also cartoonier here than before, and far more exaggerated. The character doesn’t even seem as sharp as he did previously. How on Earth, for instance, can Bourne not understand how someone else could leave a fake calling card blaming him for an assassination he didn't commit after the same exact thing has already happened in two other books?

To be fair, though, some of Bourne’s slower reactions can be attributed to his feeling his age. The best parts of the novel have to do with Bourne dealing with being 50—thirteen years older than he was in Identity. He no longer has some of those amazing action hero reflexes he was so surprised to discover back then. David Webb makes a point of staying in shape, but even in the best shape it’s not as easy to scale walls and take falls and recover from brutal fights at 50 as it was in his thirties. One of the most intriguing aspects of the Bourne series, to me, is the fact that the character (unlike many other series heroes in this genre, like Ian Fleming’s James Bond) ages in real time. Luckily for Bourne, Carlos has aged as well, and the central story of these two titans attempting to bring to a close a battle for supremacy that’s driven them both since they were much younger men is highly compelling.

There are other good things about The Bourne Ultimatum, too. Conklin’s still a wonderful character, for instance, and his colorful language remains hilarious enough to overlook the fact that black characters are still using the phrase “honkies” in 1990. (Though the best bluish outburst belongs not to Conklin, but to an irate general who berates an underling by calling him a “ball-less scrotum." I’m surprised we don’t hear that one more often!) The gay Mafia capo is a good and unique character, and Panov’s escape attempts after getting captured manage to be both exciting and amusing at once. And man can Ludlum write an action scene! The shootouts and smash-ups remain as compelling as ever.

The book gets better as it goes on, too. Once Bourne’s cross-continental pursuit of Carlos takes him behind the Iron Curtain into the Soviet Union, things are finally firing on all cylinders. The climax, which is the part I remember most vividly from my first time reading this book as a middle schooler, takes place in a KGB training facility in Novgorod where key Western cities (including my own stomping ground of that era, New London, Connecticut) have been recreated in scaled-down versions for the purpose of espionage training. The complex is like a diabolical Epcot Center, and makes a spectacular setting for the finale as Bourne continues to battle Carlos across continents—but all in the span of a few miles now. That epic confrontation alone is worth the cover price. The Bourne Ultimatum definitely has its pluses, but ultimately it’s undone by all those minuses. Reading Ludlum’s better books, it’s very easy to overlook that sort of minuses. But reading a repetitive, overlong work like this one, unfortunately, they all stand out and call too much attention to themselves. Still, by its final page, The Bourne Ultimatum has at least brought the story of Jason Bourne (aka David Webb) to a fairly satisfying conclusion.

Of course, that wasn’t totally the conclusion. The author’s estate elected to hire Eric van Lustbader to continue the series, and he’s since penned way more Bourne novels than the character’s creator ever did. I’m not sure why. Unlike James Bond, whose job entails one new assignment after another, thus lending the series to continuation, Bourne doesn’t scream out for more novels after Ultimatum. His story is complete. Lustbader might write terrific thrillers about the character for all I know, but personally I have no interest in finding out. It would stretch credulity too much to have this former fake assassin lured back into the game he despises again and again and again. Furthermore, from what I gather, Lustbader eschewed many of my favorite aspects of Ludlum’s series. I know he quickly killed off the best characters, and I suspect he did away with the compelling real-time aging. (If not, then his latest book would focus on a seventy-something assassin, and that seems unlikely.) Ludlum may not have nailed the final volume, but he told a complete story in his Bourne trilogy and as a reader I’m quite satisfied to leave it at that.

*"Ludlum on Ludlum"
**In the same 1986 interview, Ludlum quite soundly sang the virtues of heavy rewriting, adding that he tried to clarify everything in his labyrinthine plots further with each rewrite. That’s very practical… but it seems that by the time of The Bourne Ultimatum, he was over-clarifying. 

The Ludlum Dossier
Read my book review of The Parsifal Mosaic (1982) here.
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 Sigma Protocol (2001) here.
Read my book review of The Bourne Identity (1980) here.


Quiller said...

Ultimatum is one of only two Ludlum novels that I haven't read more than once, and more to the point, I didn't want to read more than once. (The other is The Matarese Countdown, the one Ludlum novel that I think should have been declared a federal disaster area.) After a quintessentially Ludlum opening with Alex Conklin and Mo Panov lured to witness a murder at a carnival, the whole thing just unravels. I can't say that there's anything in your review I disagree with, Tanner -- I heartily agree that the realistic attention paid to Webb/Bourne's advancing age helps to set the Bourne saga apart from other spy series but otherwise the book is such a mess.

I did read Eric Lustbader's The Bourne Legacy but that was as far as I got with the latter-day Bourne continuation novel. Mostly it came across to me as a way of clearing the narrative decks so as to bring the novels in line with the Bourne universe as depicted in the film. And that's ironic, because to the degree that the film series has continued, it's done so in favor of its own unique mythology. It has one great twist, but otherwise it's not really a necessary read. I do feel that Bourne's story was complete with Ultimatum (just as Jack Ryan's story was more or less complete with The Bear and the Dragon, if not Executive Orders).

Of course, by that logic, James Bond's story was complete with The Man With the Golden Gun...

Tanner said...

Nah, I think Bond exists outside that logic. Because The Bourne Ultimatum and The Bear and the Dragon actually seem to resolve major conflicts and close circles in the lives of the protagonists. (Though like you I would have been happy with Ryan ending after Executive Orders, and I really only consider the first four GREAT.) But TMWTGG doesn't close the circle on Bond mainly because Bond's never HAD the kind circles in his life that Ryan and Bourne/Webb do. The Bonds are less character pieces than those series. Even though TMWTGG does resolve plot threads from YOLT, it's still just another mission. And at the end, even if he rejects a knighthood, I fully expect Bond to take another mission the next day. So that series to me works better for continuation novels.

I completely understand your lack of desire to revisit Ultimatum, and I can't recommend otherwise. I have read it twice now, but I can't imagine going back, though I fully expect to revisit the first two again and probably again. I haven't read The Matarese Countdown, I must admit, but have only heard bad things. Haven't read The Road to Omaha either. Both of those felt like unnecessary sequels to me, whereas the first Bourne DID legitimately seem open to continuation. (So do some others, like The Icarus Agenda, but that never happened.) I'm sure I'll get around to finally reading those sequels, however necessary and however good, in the course of this Ludlum Dossier series. Thanks for the warning though!