Monday, September 27, 2010

Robert Ludlum: The Bourne Identity

"The Bourne Identity" was published in 1980, and soon secured a reputation as one of the best action-adventure novels ever published. It was adapted to film in short order: a television miniseries by 1988, and a silver-screen blockbuster by 2002 (which is how I first learned of it).  Its sequels also received Hollywood treatment, with "The Bourne Supremacy" released in 2004, and "The Bourne Ultimatum" in 2007. In 2006, it was rated by Publisher's Weekly as the second best spy thriller novel of all time, behind only the blockbuster "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold." This novel also marked a first for me, since it was my first attempt to go through a full novel in an audio-book format.

First things first: this novel bears little resemblance to the films. Besides the premise -- Jason Bourne is a former assassin and retrograde amnesiac who's trying to recover his memories -- there is little resemblance between the narratives.  Some of the names remain (Bourne, Marie St. Jacques, Alexander Conklin, etc.) but their personalities have been scrubbed: Marie St. Jacques is no longer a professional economist from Canada, but seems to be instead a wandering French bohemian without roots or family. I suppose economists just aren't sexy enough for the big screen. Moreover, many characters don't even appear in the film, most notably the primary antagonist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (alias Carlos "the Jackal," who was apparently a terrorist in real life).

The first thing I noticed about this novel, perhaps because it was being read aloud, was the quality of the descriptions given.  Ludlum is truly gifted at depicting atmosphere, the settings of his plot. Throughout the book I felt as though I were participating in an authentic French (or Swiss) cultural experience. The back-story is likewise detailed and rich, ranging from covert missions in Vietnam to assassination rings in France to intelligence agencies in America. Ludlum maintains a fairly intense momentum throughout the narrative, especially in Bourne's movement from almost total ignorance to a fair degree of self-knowledge.

However, it is precisely in this movement of the narrative that the novel develops problems.  First, I felt that too much time and effort were spent on Bourne's ignorance and confusion.  While it was a useful vehicle for presenting new information and filling in the back-story, the plot device grew old. After a certain point I just stopped counting how many times the novel resorted to Bourne saying or thinking "I recall something, it strikes me as familiar, but I don't remember; please explain what it is." Phrases and images, from an unremembered past or from his months recovering with the alocholic Dr. Washburn, were repeated almost ad nauseum. Many fragments of memory were given without letting the audience know their significance, which I suppose would be useful for priming a shocking revelation towards the end, but the references continued even after their meaning was revealed.

I was also bothered by the novel's tendency to erect and dismantle the obligatory rabbit-holes at an alarming rate. It's not possible to move from amnesia to complete self-knowledge without at least a few false starts in between, and these could have been quite useful for setting up twists and unexpected reveals along the way. But most of these red herrings were essentially non-starters, quickly dismissed as new facts become available or (worse) already known by the reader to be fallacious due to previously disclosed information. Using false starts for twists and third-act reveals would require that they be preserved for some length of time, but the author did not seem to be patient enough to let these misconceptions play out.

The greatest failing of the novel, however, is in the ending. Despite excellent pacing throughout, the story falters pretty pathetically towards the end of the novel, and the tone borders on incoherence. After setting up all of the innumerable difficulties lying between Bourne and his safe return to America or to his former life, the author seems content to sweep all of those previous difficulties aside with a wave of his hand. Thus, 'shoot-on-sight' protocol notwithstanding, the untrained Marie St. Jacques is able to contact the Canadian embassy without difficulty, find a receptive audience, tell her story, return home, and move the entire American bureaucratic apparatus to save her One True Love before his untimely demise later that afternoon!

Likewise, Alexander Conklin, Bourne's nemesis within the American intelligence community, who had heard the amnesia story from Bourne personally, and tried to kill him on the same occasion, is at the last minute and on very unconvincing grounds brought to realize his mistake. What's worse, his transformation is so complete that he ends up acting as an almost paternal figure, and lets Carlos the assassin escape from the trap Bourne had set up in order to save Bourne's life. This was not only contrary to the nature of the character (Conklin was the hard-nose C.I.A. man who had been using Bourne as the bait to catch Carlos, after all) but also the conventions and expectations of the plot. After all was said and done, how is it that the villain Carlos remains at large, with the merest glimpse of his face being our big payoff? Carlos isn't even the subject of the sequel; his storyline is concluded two novels later in "The Bourne Ultimatum." So, to sum up this ending: obstacles are summarily swept aside without explanation, largely helpless characters suddenly develop the ability to work miracles, sworn enemies are reconciled at a glance, and the villain gets away. What's up with this?

The horrid ending notwithstanding, "The Bourne Identity" is still a worthwhile read, and was at times even tremendously enjoyable. The momentum is excellent, the plot is involving, and the imagery is to die for, sometimes literally. I think it's possible to appreciate the many layers of complexity and difficulty the author set up, even while recognizing his inability to satisfactorily resolve them in the end. If you're looking for resolution, though, you'll have better luck with the movies.

To purchase, check out
The Bourne Identity: A Novel

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