An amnesiac action hero who battles a mystifying web of enemies, Jason Bourne has outlived his author. David Samuels considers the enduring appeal of the kicking, punching, paranoiac babe in the woods.
The news that there is yet another new novel out featuring the amnesiac action hero Jason Bourne is not all that surprising, despite the fact that Bourne’s creator, Robert Ludlum, is dead. Since Ludlum’s demise in 2001, his hero has appeared in four new books, which is one more Bourne novel than Ludlum wrote during his lifetime. Appearing at the rate of nearly one per year, the new Bourne adventures, written by Eric Van Lustbader, are an attempt to capitalise both on the popular action movies starring Matt Damon and on the uneasily repressed paranoia that has suffused American popular culture since the September 11 terror attacks.
With over 290 million copies of his own novels in print, Ludlum can rightly be seen as the godfather of the paranoid style in American paramilitary entertainment. Whatever literary qualities his work may be lacking – beginning with unsteady sentences that can leave the reader wondering if the author is drunk – Ludlum was a skilled orchestrator of dramatic action scenes in which the forgetful but physically able hero is united with his surroundings in the all-embracing vision of a true paranoiac. Ludlum’s thrillers are the low-culture equivalent of Thomas Pynchon’s crack-brained high-end fictions, in which comic book characters inhabit a deterministic universe controlled by unseen hands. But where Pynchon’s plots are backdrops for the play of the author’s preoccupations with tarot cards, zeppelins and other Lewis Carroll-like amusements, Ludlum’s stories are games of chicken in which the author fights to keep a stiff upper lip in the face of characters who seem forever in danger of leaping free from the normal confines of the airport thriller and comporting themselves like ultra-violent versions of the singing, dancing characters in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg – declaiming odd lines of dialogue while kicking each other in the face and shooting flare guns in the air.
Ludlum’s protagonist is a young foreign service officer named David Webb who is turned into a killer by a bombing raid in Cambodia that accidentally targets his Thai wife and children and leads him – through a series of events that are never related in any clear or comprehensible way – to become part of a US Army programme called Treadstone that produces deadly super-assassins. Assuming the identity of Jason Bourne, a US soldier who died in Vietnam, Webb is given the job of tracking down and murdering Carlos, the real-life terrorist who became known as “the Jackal” after Fredrick Forsyth’s pioneering 1971 thriller.
Where Forsyth was interested in bringing the logistics of a professional assassination plot to life, Ludlum was a fantasist whose paranoia was more interesting to him than the real-world details of actual weapons or conspiracies. His hero is opposed by an ever-expanding web of conspirators, which grows over the course of the three original novels to include Nato generals, the CIA and the KGB, Italian mafia capos in Brooklyn, desk clerks at Caribbean resorts and nuns pedalling bicycles through the streets of Paris – all controlled by Carlos, whom Bourne was dispatched to kill at some point in a past that returns to him only in dribs and drabs.
Unable to remember his name or where he came from, or to understand the influence of the past on the present, Jason Bourne was a ready-made metaphor for the Cold War American giant locked in a combat it does not understand, able to draw upon reserves of strength and resilience that make his efforts at self-understanding seem even more pitiful. From his first appearance in the 1980 novel The Bourne Identity, he was rendered in distinctive prose that teetered between familiar Grade B movie dialogue and loony eccentricity. Here, for example, is Ludlum’s attempt to explain Bourne’s amnesia, which the author tells us was brought on by a terrible shock.
“‘Massive shocks to what?’” Ludlum has Bourne ask the physician who is attempting to rescue his mind.
“‘The physical and the psychological. They were related interwoven – two strands of experience, or stimulate, that became knotted,’” the doctor answers, but even Bourne doesn’t believe him:
“‘How much sauce have you had?’”
“‘Less than you think; it’s irrelevant.’ The doctor picked up a clipboard filled with pages. ‘This is your history …’”
Readers seeking enlightenment as to the actual weapons or methods employed by government-trained killers are advised to look elsewhere. It seems safe to say that his weapon of choice, the flare gun, is rarely if ever used by professional assassins. Ludlum’s description of more advanced weapons is apparently rooted in a complete lack of interest in firearms. His accounts of man-on-man violence are drawn from the annals of stage combat rather than actual fighting, as the following passage makes clear: “Jason grabbed the man by his neck, clawing at his throat, yanking him up off the seat. Then he raised his bloody left hand and thrust it forward, smearing the area of the killer’s eyes”.
Of course Ludlum, a New York City boy who studied liberal arts at Wesleyan University and then went into the theatre business, writing and producing plays, was no more interested in paramilitary combat than Pynchon was interested in the inner workings of the post office. His paranoid vision of man’s place in a disordered universe is one that echoes through the literature and popular music of the 1970s. “Maybe you just know what you’ve been told.... Over and over and over again,” says the authorial voice inside Jason Bourne’s head. “Until there was nothing else.... Things you’ve been told ... but can’t relive ... because they’re not really you.”
The renewed popularity of Ludlum’s creations reflects an aesthetic shift expressed in the rise of serial television dramas like 24, The Sopranos and The Wire, which dole out carefully-calibrated methadone drips of fear about deadly al Qa’eda plots being orchestrated in secret places that we can experience at a safe distance while sitting alone in darkened movie theatres or on our couches at home. The reasons for this shift are not hard to fathom: in the safety of airport transit lounges, after being made to take off their shoes and walk through x-ray machines, the target audience for Ludlum’s novels watches CNN reports in which terror trials and the anniversaries of terror attacks compete with warnings about shadowy official forces that would deprive Americans of liberties in the name of the fight against terrorism.
Yet the paranoid style that emerges from time to time to disrupt the familiar dialogue between romantic song-and-dance and hard-boiled realism in the American aesthetic is not simply the product of recent political derangements, and is in fact as old as the Republic itself. Dark and mostly fictional imaginations about the intentions of King George III and his advisers led the American colonists to revolt against the British crown and to enshrine their suspicion of settled authority in the US Constitution. Where Europeans would be haunted by the inexorable ghosts of the past, Americans attempted to abolish the past in order to become a new people. In the terms of romantic psychology, at least, the founding act of American self-creation would ensure that the rebellious colonists and their children would remain preoccupied by the thought that an unseen person or force was controlling their thoughts and actions.
The rise of the serial drama in the age of terror has given new cultural value to Ludlum’s greatest strength as a writer, his mastery of the 19th century theatrical apparatus. Where the postmodern novelists of the 1960s and 1970s enjoyed lampooning the shaggy dog mechanics of plot, Ludlum’s delight in orchestrating over-the-top scenarios is less an attempt to poke fun at the form of the novel than the overflow of an imagination that can’t stop making stuff up. Ludlum’s natural inclination as a writer is to keep adding more, and his books are stuffed with dramatic incident to a degree that would drive any professional screenwriter nuts. The only sensible way to turn Ludlum’s novels into movies is to do what the screenwriters and directors of the three Bourne movies did for Matt Damon – throw out the plots of the books while retaining the titles and the character of Jason Bourne.
The only sensible way to turn Ludlum’s novels into movies is to do what the screenwriters and directors of the three Bourne movies did for Matt Damon – throw out the plots of the books while retaining the titles and the character of Jason Bourne. Universal
Reading the Bourne books over – all three of them, plus the four written after Robert Ludlum’s death – it is clear that the natural medium for Ludlum’s dramatic imagination was not novels or movies but something much like 24, a show that shares Ludlum’s genius for orchestrating breathless tick-tock sequences while attempting to stifle any potential audience laughter through the liberal application of shock and gore. Where 24 largely revolves around the topical question of how and when special agent Jack Bauer will break the law and torture suspects in order to stop terrorists from killing innocent people, the Bourne novels explore the more self-conscious question of what it feels like to be attacked by unknown enemies for reasons that you can’t explain. It does not seem like an accident that the hero of 24, Jack Bauer, shares not only an identical set of initials with Jason Bourne, but also a suspiciously similar back-story, in which the hero’s wife is killed and he is severed from the affectionate universe of family life. Cast out into a fluorescent-lit world of cell phones and small-screen PDAs, he is fated to live in an endless sleep-deprived present in which only his cat-like reflexes and ability to do bad things to bad people using household objects may avert a global meltdown.
Bourne’s romance with his audience owes a lot to the collective yearning for escape from the shadowy grey-area conflicts of the Cold War era. The violent action thrillers that found wide audiences in America during both the Cold War and the War on Terror operate according to a different logic than the “spy novels” with which they are often lazily grouped by critics. The spy novel is the product of a unique combination of Eastern European and English sensibilities brought together by the great Polish novelist Joseph Conrad, whose The Secret Agent, published in 1907 in London, is widely considered to be the first example of the genre. Conrad’s novel traces the life of a Russian-controlled provocateur in London named Adolf Verloc, who is assigned the task of blowing up the Greenwich Observatory – a crime that will be attributed to the anarchist cell into which Verloc has insinuated himself. As part of his plot, Verloc befriends and then uses his wife’s brother, Stevie, a sensitive misfit who spends most of his days drawing meaningless circles on paper, and whose pointless martyrdom establishes him as the representative victim of political madness that all future examples of the form would require.
Conrad’s next novel, Under Western Eyes, published in 1911, defined the new genre’s mix of suspense, depth psychology and political commentary with even greater clarity while also describing a mood of anti-romantic disillusion that would characterise the highly literate and cerebral fictions of Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, John le Carre, Robert Littell, Alan Furst and other notable practitioners of the espionage plot, who created tension in their work by weaving and unwinding webs of deception and whose favourite device was the double-cross. The tick-tock action sequences that made The Secret Agent such a good read would find their home elsewhere – in Ian Fleming’s debonair pulp, in Forsyth’s newsy action-adventure novels, and in a substantial body of nonfiction about paramilitary exploits by reporters like Mark Bowden.
The bifurcation of the genre that Conrad created was a reflection of both the social expectations and the historical experience of European and American readers. The alternation between political idealism, horrifying consequences and brutal cynicism that characterised 20th-century European political experience has always proved difficult for American readers to grasp. The devices of masquerade and double-cross, so familiar to inhabitants of highly stratified societies, seemed fussy and confusing. Americans apparently had little appetite for reading about the finer details of espionage, a craft that they have been shockingly bad at. In 1990, the year that the Soviet Union collapsed, both the FBI man responsible for hunting Soviet spies in the US and the CIA department chief who directed analysis of Soviet intelligence abroad – Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames – were Soviet double agents.
Ludlum countered the troubling European-style intricacies of the spy plot with a hero who couldn’t remember his own name. But Bourne’s inability to fully unravel the nagging questions of who he was and who exactly was trying to kill him did not inhibit his increasingly enthusiastic application of physical violence. The success of the Bourne Identity was followed by The Bourne Supremacy (1986), whose action revolved around the premise that a fake Jason Bourne had been created by an international master assassin in order to rake in the bucks from the contracts that the “real” Bourne refused to take, and featured well-orchestrated action sequences set in hazily imagined Asian locales. The novel ended with a crazed torture-murder perpetrated by followers of the Kuomintang who had taken refuge in a wild bird sanctuary inside mainland China, a scene that was so over-the-top that it seemed to leave even Ludlum speechless. “Jason Bourne is gone. He can’t come back,” the novelist promised on page 646.
Ludlum broke his promise in 1990 with The Bourne Ultimatum, which involved its hero in a new wide-ranging conspiracy that included the head of the Federal Trade Commission, a five-star US general, and a gay mafioso in Brooklyn Heights. Yet the textbook case of clinical paranoia that afflicted Ludlum’s hero in The Bourne Identity had almost entirely dissipated. Where the US government tried to kill Bourne in the first Bourne book, and reached a wary accommodation with him in the sequel, they were now Bourne’s unabashed fans and weepy-eyed protectors. The action of the book ranged from the island of Montserrat to the Plaza Athene Hotel in Paris, suggesting that Ludlum had become acquainted with the high life. Yet even in a luxury beach hotel in Montserrat, owned by Jason Bourne’s brother-in-law (the amnesiac assassin was now married to a stunning Canadian economist) traces of his old paranoia remained. “There’s no time, Johnny,” Bourne warned his brother-in-law. “Carlos has an army – his army – of old men who’ll die for him, kill for him. There won’t be any strangers on the beach, they’re already there!”
Ludlum’s third and final Bourne novel fittingly ended with an apocalyptic showdown with the mythical assassin Carlos (a Ludlum creation, who bears a faint but recognisable resemblance to the real assassin Carlos) and Jason Bourne, set in a place that only Ludlum could have imagined – an entirely fictional KGB training facility in Novgorod surrounded by state-of-the-art security systems and filled with scale mock-ups of streets and other prominent features of New York, Washington, Paris, Berlin, Madrid and other western cities and towns populated by KGB agents fluent in every regional language and dialect. The world would burn, but in the end the world was only a stage set populated by the products of Ludlum’s paranoid imagination.
The Bourne Identity, the Bourne movies, and derivative narratives like 24 are well-built works that offer ample evidence of the strength and coherence of Ludlum’s most memorable character, and the decision to continue publishing novels featuring Jason Bourne after Ludlum’s death in 2001 is not hard to fathom. Ludlum reportedly left dozens of outlines, notes and ideas for books that are currently being churned out by an anonymous ghostwriter. Even if those reports are false, the value of a name that has sold almost 300 million books is too high for any purveyor of airport paperbacks to pass up. Just as Coco Chanel continues to sell perfume, and Gucci sells suits, Robert Ludlum continues to sell thrillers.
As new books allegedly written in part by Ludlum roll off the presses, the writer Eric Van Lustbader has also been hired to produce a new series of books featuring Jason Bourne that might capitalise on the popularity of the films. Van Lustbader has cranked out numerous genre best-sellers under his own name, including Ninja, The Ring of Five Dragons, Dragons on A Sea of Night, White Ninja, Angel Eyes – which would seem to make him the perfect choice to pick over Ludlum’s scratch sheets from luxury hotels in Asia, Europe and the Caribbean in the hopes of discovering a future best-seller.
Alec Guinness in the 1959 adaptation of Graham Greene’s comic spy novel ‘Our Man In Havana’: American readers, unconcerned with the intricacies of espionage, took little interest in cerebral European spy fiction. Everett Collection
One explanation for why Van Lustbader’s Bourne books are so bad – and they are truly terrible – is that as a sober and professional author of made-to-order literature Van Lustbader is the wrong man to craft entertainments whose major selling point was that they appeared to have been written by someone who was seriously unhinged. Lacking Ludlum’s inspired sense of lunacy as well as his convulsive plotting, Van Lustbader sucks all the fun out of books whose appeal was never their plausibility. His world is a dry, flat place where the action only moves in one direction and you can spot a plot twist from a mile away.
What is more difficult to fathom about Van Lustbader’s updated version of Jason Bourne is his decision to do away with the character’s paranoia, a choice that seems about as clever as casting Marilyn Monroe in a movie about nuns. That paranoia is not only the hero’s sole distinguishing psychological trait, it is also the way that Ludlum links Bourne’s inner life with the outside world. By toggling back and forth between the seemingly deranged nature of his hero’s perceptions and a reality in which people are in fact trying to kill him, Ludlum was able to manufacture a degree of real tension despite the overt silliness of his plots. The decision to undo the paranoid web in which Ludlum’s hero was stuck only reveals that Van Lustbader lacks a convincing account of how and why his characters act the way that they do. Faced with these questions, which are just as significant for authors of airport thrillers as they are for the writers of literary novels and horror stories, Van Lustbader draws a blank.
Over the course of his four Jason Bourne novels, Van Lustbader’s approach to his hero has been to remove him piece by piece from the plots of the books – first, by taking away Bourne’s defining paranoia, and neutering him with a family and psychiatric drugs, and then by sidelining the pathetic remnants of Bourne’s character for large sections of the books in favour of a virile Russian assassin that Van Lustbader created. While Van Lustbader’s aggression towards Bourne makes little sense within the context of Ludlum’s own fictional universe, it seems plausible that the hireling author would want to demonstrate his independence by killing off his inherited characters. His attack on Ludlum’s creations begins in his very first Bourne book, The Bourne Legacy (2004), in which he turns Jason Bourne back into Professor David Webb and pictures him grading a stack of term papers. Showing Webb to be a loving suburban dad with two adorable children, the author then reveals that Khan, Bourne’s half-Thai son from Cambodia, is still alive and has become a top professional assassin just like his father. But instead of killing each other, the men become friends. At the end of the book Khan sends a birthday present to Webb’s new son, which the absent father can then present as his own gift.
In The Bourne Betrayal (2007), Van Lustbader takes his desire to murder his inherited hero one step further, killing off Bourne’s wife Marie, and then suggesting that Bourne deal with his grief and cure his long-running amnesia by taking antidepressants. Bourne’s new enemies, not surprisingly, are clownish caricatures of Islamic radicalism who talk in clichés that would make even the most hardened network television producer grimace. “We are not individuals, Martin, but part of a family unit,” his Islamic terrorist Fadi explains. “The honour of the family resides in its daughters.”
The Bourne Sanction (2008) introduces a replacement for Carlos, a Russian killer named Arkadin, who grew up in Nizhny Tagil, an industrial city ringed by maximum-security prisons whose heavy metal landscape seems like something out of Dickens by way of Metallica. “Arkadin closed his eyes and was back in the sooty stench of Nizhny Tagil, men with filed teeth and blurry tattoos, women old before their time, bent, swigging homemade vodka from plastic soda bottles, girls with sunken eyes, bereft of a future. And then the mass grave...”
It would be nice to imagine that Van Lustbader switched villains because he was embarrassed by the racism of his previous novel, but Arkadin’s employers turn out to be another Muslim terror group – this one, called the Black Legion, is preparing to attack the Empire State Building, as well as a giant fuel depot in California operated by a company called NextGen.
After Bourne foils the plot, he is offered a reward of the type that would have made a paranoid like Robert Ludlum bang his head against the padded wall of his Paris hotel room. “The grateful CEO of NextGen had just left the clinic, after promoting Moira to president of the security division and offering Bourne a highly lucrative consulting position within the firm.” It is hard to imagine a more sadistic ending than this: the globe-trotting amnesiac assassin who fought it out with Carlos across three continents is now a corporate office drone.
Since the legal requirements of a five-book deal seem to have stood in the way of the author’s desire to murder his hero, Van Lustbader returned Bourne to action in The Bourne Deception (2009), with the promise of a climactic battle between Bourne and Arkadin. Having killed Bourne’s spirit, he consigns him to any self-respecting assassin’s personal idea of hell – the scenic honeymooners’ island of Bali, where Bourne is forced to listen to a bunch of travel-magazine nonsense about the double ikat of Tenganan, a strip of magical cloth whose properties derive from the fact that it can only be woven one day a month, under a full moon.
Not content with this torture, Van Lustbader then tries to dissolve the hero’s battered psyche. “Having tried and failed to reintegrate into Webb’s academic life, he’d decided to disengage himself from Webb,” Lustbader coaxes, as he tries to convince the reader into swallowing another heavy dose of pseudo-psychological prose. “With a palpable start he realised that here on Bali he’d also begun to disengage from the Bourne identity with which he’d come to associate so closely.”
Shifting with the political winds, Van Lustbader now worries his reader about a secret neo-con conspiracy led by Noah Perlis, a hook-nosed gentleman born in Tel Aviv, who covets “billions of dollars to be made off a war in a new theatre of operations.” As head of a mercenary organisation called “Black River”, Perlis fabricates a group of pro-Western dissident Iranians (because no actual dissidents exist inside Iran, the author informs us), and arranges for an American airliner to be shot down by what looks like a Russian-made Iranian missile as a pretext to gain control of Iranian oil. Arkadin hijacks the operation and is set to make out, until he is confronted by Bourne, who puts in his contractually obligated appearance at the end of the book.
It is possible, of course, that Van Lustbader is simply baffled by a character whose vision of the world is so discomfiting. Lacking Ludlum’s propulsive certainties about the paranoid logic that holds things together, Van Lustbader is adrift on the same seas that buffet his readers. Where the bristling paranoia of Ludlum’s fiction speaks to an isolated reader who wants to tear aside the veil of illusion, the reader that Van Lustbader imagines is using fiction as a means to fix his illusions in place, so that his life can proceed more or less the way it did before things started blowing up at home, in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Perhaps this is why the funniest and most characteristic passages of Van Lustbader’s Bourne novels are those where he recasts the small-calibre catastrophes of office life in the heart-stopping mode of the action-thriller:
“‘Oh, God,’ she moaned. ‘No.’ “Sinking to her knees, she scooped up the disks, remnants of her hard drive, which was split open, unusable, unsalvageable, utterly ruined.”
Van Lustbader is set to publish his fifth and perhaps final Bourne book next year – and, given his previous work, there is every reason to believe that he will gin up the courage to kill off his hero, which is a shame. The man with no name who feels himself to be alone in a tangled web of malevolent forces is an emblematic American hero just like Elvis Presley and Mickey Mouse. The demise of such a character might be seen as a reassuring sign of the growing maturity of a culture that no longer needs to rely on the adolescent paranoia that characterized much of the artistic production of the 1960s and 1970s, but the truth is that both the high and the low art of that era were superior to what we make and watch today. In the arc of the Bourne books it is possible to see how broad our tolerance once was for explorations of the inner lives of even the most ludicrous characters, and how sterile and mechanistic our explanations for human behavior have become.
David Samuels is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine and a regular contributor to the New Yorker.