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Boom at the Top

The Bourne Supremacy

by Robert Ludlum
Random House, 597 pp., $19.95

The White House Mess

by Christopher Buckley
Knopf, 224 pp., $16.95

The Sisters

by Robert Littell
Bantam, 312 pp., $16.95

Stallion Gate

by Martin Cruz Smith
Random House, 321 pp., $17.95

Near the end of The Bourne Supremacy, two mandarins of American intelligence wonder together at the feats of good field agents:

These people do things the rest of us only dream about, or fantasize, or watch on a screen, disbelieving every moment because it’s so outrageously implausible.”

We wouldn’t have such dreams, or fantasize, or stay mesmerized by invention, if the fundamentals weren’t in the human experience. They do what they do best just as we do what we do best.”

It is in effect an apologia, or manifesto, for Robert Ludlum’s outrageously implausible fiction. Though the notion that reading thrillers expresses a need to fantasize is all too familiar, it may be useful to ask who “the rest of us” are, and what we want from such writing, as compared with what we get.

First, we are people who buy books. According to The New York Times Book Review, The Bourne Supremacy became the number one fiction best seller in its first week of publication, and many thousands of people will gladly part with twenty dollars to read it before millions more pay six or seven dollars for the paperback. We are also males—though plenty of women read mysteries and even “tough” crime fiction, I know few who would give Ludlum the time of day, or who care much for even superior espionage novels like those of John le Carré. And of course we read such thrillers when we’re not out working for our money, when in fact we’re lying down—in bed, in the bathtub, on the beach—or sitting in commuter trains or airplanes.

But what is it that all we recumbent, reasonably well-to-do fellows want from what might as well be called a ludlum? First the thing needs to be defined. A ludlum: a long, turgidly written, and frantically overplotted novel, the literary equivalent of seriously wielding a plumber’s helper. Its subject is conspiracy, the secret scheming of our collective enemies, foreign and domestic, and the equally secret and almost as menacing counterscheming of our supposed friends and protectors, the CIA or the NSC or the even more sinister “Consular Operations” branch of the State Department, which we may fervently hope is Ludlum’s invention. To put it more grandly, the subject is the dreadful subsumption of private selfhood and its moral sense into a morally indeterminate public life. Ludlum’s heroes are respectable, successful men—lawyers, scholars, businessmen, and the like—who are entrapped and used by hidden power; some of the manipulators are on our side, some not, and the hero’s problem is to get them sorted out. But in an authorial move almost de rigueur in such fiction, the difference between good and bad is made maddeningly obscure, and the hero’s fate is simply to survive and find some private happiness outside the labyrinths of power which may seem to enclose us all.

The Bourne Supremacy is a sequel to The Bourne Identity, and it would baffle a reader who didn’t know the earlier book (an unlikely prospect). Both novels center on David Webb, who as Delta One led a ruthless guerrilla death squad in Vietnam. Webb was also known and feared as Jason Bourne, a name he took from a dead associate in this Medusa outfit, and in The Bourne Identity he is called Cain when American covert intelligence maneuvers him into collision with the terrorist Carlos, whom he foils and almost destroys.

When The Bourne Supremacy begins, Webb is a partial amnesiac, living quietly in Maine with his second wife, teaching Oriental studies at a small university and trying to erase the Delta-Bourne-Cain area of his psyche. But in Hong Kong someone calling himself Jason Bourne has begun a campaign of political assassinations that imperils the peace of just about the whole world, and Consular Operations conceives a plot to trick the real Bourne, David Webb, back into action against this impostor. Webb’s wife is kidnapped, and Webb, knowing he’s being recruited but not by whom, sets off for the Orient to rescue her.

I won’t try to describe the layers of disinformation that Webb and the reader must peel away before the truth appears. That truth is that a potentate in Beijing, a “philosopher-prince” named Sheng Chou Yang whom I envision as a cross between Dr. Fu Man Chu and Ming the Merciless, is plotting to wreck the People’s Republic and restore the Nationalists and the war lords. Sheng’s chief instrument is the false Bourne, a well-born but psychotic English ex-commando, whose murders are meant to create the illusion of gang warfare among the Triads of Hong Kong. Since the Red Chinese are as terrified of organized crime as we are, they will thus be provoked into occupying Hong Kong before the treaty expires in 1997, and this, Sheng knows, will start a general ruckus in which the Western allies and the Soviets will destroy the People’s Republic, whereupon he and his Taiwanese cronies will take over.

When so abruptly undressed, Ludlum’s plots seem scrawny, shivering things, but in the books, as in any striptease, the audience enjoys the process more than what they finally get. Any reader of ludlums knows that no sensible reference to geopolitical reality is intended. Nor are other sorts of realism needed, certainly not the sort that serious fiction invokes when it suggests that characters are not wholly the servants of the writer’s efficient purposes. My interest woke, for example, when Webb, before leaving Maine to pursue his wife’s abductors, pauses to set back the thermostat and cancel the newspaper, but Ludlum was too fast for me—knowing that motives must follow function, he quickly explains that Webb did this to mislead any hostile agents who might be observing him, by making it seem that he’s gone away calmly and normally and can be expected back soon. The closest the book comes to suggesting irrelevant personal existence is when Webb, hiding out in a Chinese tourist hotel, hears an enraged matron from Short Hills shrieking, “The toilet doesn’t work and you can forget the phone!”

Where then does our pleasure lie? Some of it lies simply in a second-hand, low-grade tourism. The book is packed with Chinese words and Oriental scenery and food; Ludlum loves it when someone can say something like “You have good joss.” We can enviously assume that he’s actually been to Hong Kong, and even more enviously that he deducted the cost as “research.” For us ordinary men there is vicarious pleasure too in watching a mere college professor find it in him to survive and triumph over extreme physical and moral danger. It is bracing to look out from where our reasonable, stable, somewhat boring lives are led, upon a world full of “maniacs” (Ludlum’s favorite word for enemies of any persuasion), a world where each new danger is met with cries of “Incredible!” “Unbelievable!” “Insane!,” which can be cries of delight as well as dread.

Ludlum is careful to write as badly as he can. His characters are given to remarks like “There’s a rotten growth in our collective armor,” and I treasure the moment when one of them, a relatively sane psychiatrist, mutters, “Don’t ask me where these people find their metaphors.” But this conventional shoot-‘em-up action prose has its own kind of interest:

The assassin threw himself over the row of flowers, clutching the warm barrel of Bourne’s machine gun, wrenching it downward, leveling and firing his own gun at Jason. The bullet grazed Bourne’s forehead, and in fury, Jason yanked back the trigger of the repeating weapon. Bullets thundered into the ground, the vibrations within their small, deadly arena earth-shattering. He grabbed the Englishman’s gun, twisting it counterclockwise. The assassin’s mutilated right arm was no match for the man from Medusa. The gun exploded as Bourne wrenched it free. The impostor fell back on the grass, his eyes glazed, within them the knowledge that he had lost.

It would be hard for a writer to make action seem less “realistic” than this—in such a situation, for example, who would have this preternatural awareness of what particular bullets were doing? But if the details are clumsy (did the gun “explode” or just fire?), the passage makes dim if unintentional contact with a great tradition of violence in literature. One combatant, Webb, is called “Bourne,” “Jason,” and “the man from Medusa,” while the other is “the assassin,” “the Englishman,” and “the imposter”; a firearm can be a “machine gun,” a “repeating weapon,” or just a “gun.” If this is the elegant variation that identifies so much bad prose, still some of it sounds oddly like the variable formulaic epithets of Homeric and other oral epics, those metrical conveniences that also suggest that great men and gods and natural forces need more than one name if their magnificence is to be properly known. (The names “Jason” and “Medusa” help too.) And while I doubt that those bullets “thundered” into the ground (“thudded”?) and that very much earth was shattered by their “earth-shattering” impact, still the enlargement of small and violent human acts into large and violent natural events is standard in heroic writing. Neither Ludlum nor the reader needs to be conscious of such effects for them to work as similar ones do in the Iliad or Beowulf.

Most importantly, there is a strong if ambiguous appeal in the way Ludlum makes his heroes’ motives personal ones. Those who manipulate Webb do so for the greater good even though it compromises their own moral values. But when Webb is forced back into the identity of Jason Bourne, the valueless killing machine he so deeply despises, his motive is immediate and selfish: someone has got his wife, and he wants her back. This is convenient for the author, since making Webb-Bourne the soldier of no cause but his own can offer no insult to the politics of any reader. But it also strikes a welcome note for a reader who is sick of politics altogether, worn numb by competing ideologies and slogans, wearied by demands that he care deeply about people and places that seem no concern of his.

Webb would have refused this mission if given a choice, because he doubts his capacities and because he resents being used even for “good” purposes. But his alter ego Bourne, the violent, selfish Hobbesian natural man we are born as and whom our socialized selves must bear ever after, can emerge and act with savage efficiency when Webb’s civilized self is weakened by losing his wife. She, restored, tells Webb this as the book ends:

What do you do when there’s a part of you that you hate?” said Webb.

Accept it,” answered Marie. “We all have a dark side, David. We wish we could deny it, but we can’t. It’s there. Perhaps we can’t exist without it. Yours is a legend called Jason Bourne, but that’s all it is.”

I loathe him.”

He brought you back to me. That’s all that matters.”

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