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.”
Well, it’s surely not all that matters, and for the reader the terms may be reversed; he may loathe not his dark side, the Old Adam within him, but the redeemed, acculturated self that goes to the office, makes deals, and tries to be liked, content to let the politicians, policemen, and spies do the dirty work. I imagine he sometimes wonders where his dark side went, and that he welcomes any news that it may still be around somewhere or other.
It may seem some distance from a ludlum to a political burlesque like Christopher Buckley’s The White House Mess, which declines to find much darkness just where we expected a lot, in the corridors of national power. Though the book carries dust-jacket testimonials from such as George F. Will, David A. Stockman, and John Kenneth Galbraith, who ecumenically agree that it’s somewhere between funny and hilarious, its comedy seems rather feeble. Like Ludlum, Buckley wants to offend no one’s politics, and he mixes jokes about Reagan and George Bush (for whom he once wrote speeches) with ones about Carter and Geraldine Ferraro, none of them nasty enough to be truly stimulating. This dark side is only golden brown—not brutality but petty buffoonery is the born identity politics reveals.
The book traces the first and only term of President Thomas Nelson Tucker (“TNT”), a Democrat who succeeds Reagan in 1988, through the memoirs of Herbert Wadlough, once Tucker’s accountant and now his prim and inept personal assistant. Buckley can’t quite make up his mind about Tucker, who often seems the only person in Washington who’s capable of wit and good sense but whose policies are utterly disastrous. If his tribulations remind anyone of Jimmy Carter’s, I doubt that the author will be greatly displeased.
Tucker wants to improve relations with Cuba, but when he meets with Castro the latter is overattentive to Mrs. Tucker, a former soft-porn movie star, and makes too long a speech, which somehow spoils all hope of détente, though we do give him back Guantánamo later. Tucker wants to meet “ordinary” citizens but is fed a sequence of oafs and psychopaths by his blundering staff, often with the wrong background information attached. He offers to return the Gadsden Purchase to Mexico; he tries to issue letters of marque authorizing private citizens to sink or shoot down drug runners; he has the Oval Office rigged as a bomb shelter which will sink deep underground when missiles approach, but it malfunctions, entombing the claustrophobic German chancellor. The decisive disaster is the humiliation of America by fanatic Bermudan nationalists and their charismatic leader, who assault our air base, hold hostage the President’s screwy brother and his naive national security adviser, and say many rude things about Yankee imperialists. When Tucker sedates them with sleeping gas and declares the island’s only airport a naval target range, thus destroying tourism and the local sweater industry, America is outraged that he did so little and the world community that he did so much.
But Buckley is less interested in public matters than in the backstairs pushing and shoving among the White House help. All of Tucker’s staffers aspire to “access” and perks, some fighting over playing time on the presidential tennis court, others over invitations to the Summer White House or relative degrees of security clearance; Wadlough’s own struggle is to control the executive mess and its menus (hence the book’s title). When Tucker muses that “This place could turn us all into assholes,” the reader may prefer to think that they were such before they ever got there. Buckley works hard for his comedy, but unless you are ready to laugh at an accounting firm called Dewey, Scruem and Howe or a pair of bureaucrats named Phetlock and Withers, I doubt that The White House Mess will vastly amuse. It wants to say that Washington is just a silly place like any other, and that this should cause no great alarm. What it may show, however, is that we find our rulers so frightening that only nervous laughter seems a safe response. This is the kind of “satire” that grins at whatever it touches but damages nothing at all—to find it funny is to confess how badly one wants not to take the subject seriously.
Robert Littell’s The Sisters shows what imagination and decent writing can do for a thriller. The Sisters in question are in fact men, related only by a long and close professional association. Francis and Carroll are the CIA’s odd couple, slightly epicene right-wing veterans now thought outdated or even crazy by the rest of the agency. They lead dull bachelor lives in Washington, they always work as a team (Francis is the idea man, Carroll works out the details), their derisive nickname comes from a suitably ominous line of Whitman’s: “the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again, and over again, this soil’d world.” As the story begins, in 1963, they are plotting an unauthorized “perfect crime” for which they need an agent who won’t know, or ask, who his clients are.
The crime is the assassination of John Kennedy, though Littell rather coyly calls him only “the Prince of the Realm.” To obtain their agent, the Sisters organize the defection to the West of “the Potter,” once the KGB rezident in New York and recently retired as head of the Soviet “sleeper school,” which trains agents to live under deep cover in America until needed. The Potter agrees to awaken his prize sleeper, planning to cancel the signal before any real harm is done.
But the KGB knows of and secretly assists this plot; where the Sisters want a manipulable assassin who can be proved a Russian agent, the Russians are glad to furnish one who can be proved a CIA dupe. As the sleeper moves from Brooklyn toward his fatal assignment in Dallas, the Potter follows, fighting off vicious KGB “sweepers” who are assigned to cover the trail, and gradually figuring out some of the complexities of the operation. He catches up with the sleeper just as he fires at the motorcade from a grassy knoll and as another assassin, whom only the Soviets and the reader know about (American born, recruited by the Cubans, trained in Mexico), shoots from the window of an office building. Meanwhile the CIA has smelled a rat, but when Carroll confesses, the director lets the plan proceed, since it will rid them of an uncomfortably liberal president while embarrassing the commies; neither Carroll not the director knows that Francis himself is a Russian agent who has been giving his masters evidence of the agency’s involvement. When this is found out after the assassination, the CIA and the KGB agree to cut their losses, eliminate all concerned, and bury the awful truth.
Littell is determined not to play all this for horror or moral theatrics as a ludlum would do. The touch is generally light—the Sisters’ confidential aide, whom they like to call “our man Friday,” is in fact named Thursday, and liberal flesh won’t creep at the exposure of Realpolitik within the intelligence community:
G. Sprowls and the Deputy Director exchanged knowing looks. “If the Soviets are blamed,” the Deputy Director offered from the couch, “Congress and the public will begin to see the world as we see it; as it really is! The Company will be unleashed to take its place in the front line of battle. We won’t have to go begging hat in hand up on the Hill every time we need a few hundred million dollars.”
The Director slowly swiveled back toward the room. It was apparent that he had come to a decision. “As far as I am concerned, gentlemen,” he announced in a businesslike tone, “this meeting never took place.”
The Deputy Director’s eyes widened in complicity. “What meeting,” he asked innocently, “are you talking about?”
The moment seems to have crept in from The White House Mess—if decisions like this really are made in Langley, Virginia, we can comfort ourselves by supposing that at least such people don’t talk like a dull skit on Saturday Night Live.
Littell’s appeal to readers of thrillers is both subtler and less satisfying than Ludlum’s. All the men in The Sisters are hardened professionals (as usual, the women don’t much matter); no access is provided for civilians, no faintest suggestion that the fantasy has room for people like us. We see the thing and its considerable artfulness from a clear, disinterested distance. But such purity costs something. Certainly my own feelings about political murder or covert intelligence in general were never exercised as I read Littell’s cool, elegant story—in a way, ludlums may be better for the health.
History also inspires Martin Cruz Smith’s Stallion Gate, which considers the making and testing of the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos. Robert Oppenheimer is an important secondary character, and other real figures—Fermi, Teller, Klaus Fuchs, General Leslie Groves, Harry Gold—make passing appearances. But Smith peoples the center with his own inventions: Sergeant Joe Peña, a Pueblo Indian who is Oppenheimer’s driver; Captain Augustino, the odious chief of security; and Anna Weiss, a sympathetic but unstable refugee mathematician working on the project.
This is only reluctantly a thriller. Smith, himself part Indian, is interested in the cultural collision between modern science and the native beliefs and folkways of New Mexico, and part of Joe Peña’s function is to mediate between large forces. At the same time he must observe the details of bomb making, fall in love with Anna Weiss, raise $50,000 to buy a jazz club in Albuquerque, and serve as reluctant stool pigeon for Augustino, a right-wing Texan who’s sure that all these intellectuals and foreigners are up to no good. This is too much for one character to handle, and Smith struggles visibly to get everything in—atomic technology, Indian consciousness, espionage, American political paranoia, the Oppenheimer tragedy, the moral debate about using atomic weapons, a little slam-bang action, an interracial romance.
With a load like this on his shoulders, Peña can’t be a credibly free witness to history. He is a survivor of Bataan, a Regular Army NCO with a fatal allure for Anglo ladies, a splendid figure of manhood who was once a nationally ranked professional fighter, a gifted jazz pianist who picked up considerable intellectual and political savvy in New York and Paris before the war, a shrewd amateur detective and moralist. I’m afraid that Peña is merely a device of plot and theme and not a person. Any of his roles would do nicely by itself—we understand and care about his resistance to the racistfascist Augustino, his concern about preserving what’s left of his Indian identity, his fascination with the silliness and greatness in Oppenheimer, his need to own the jazz club, and so on. But the sheer mass of his duties to the narrative constricts his human interest, especially since Smith insists that he be right at the center of everything.
It is Peña who detects Klaus Fuchs’s treachery, though Augustino, who only wants Oppenheimer himself, isn’t interested; Peña who sensibly arbitrates the debate about using the bomb on Japan; Peña whose mere presence proves that the detonation device will work (“You did it!” a scientist exclaims. “Oppy and I didn’t matter. You’re bigger. When you leaned over the Dragon, you triggered the counters”). It’s Peña who frees the test bomb when it sticks going up the tower, who persuades Oppenheimer to delay the test when bad weather comes, who (just hours after he wins $66,000 betting on himself in an illegal bare-knuckles bout in a motel parking lot) has another, fatal fight with the vile Augustino on the test tower as the countdown to Trinity nears zero.
In a movie such rigging might get by, but in a novel with serious aspirations it spoils everything. I imagine that Smith wants to hold the audience he won with Gorky Park, an intelligent thriller that deserved its success. But his wish to make a star of Joe Peña ensures that Stallion Gate can be neither a good suspense story nor a serious historical novel. The desire of a genuine literary talent to escape from a popular genre he is very good at (the case of John le Carré is also pertinent) deserves our sympathy; but the escape had better be complete, and the alternative—to stay with the genre, respect it, and refine it further, as Dickens and Stevenson and Conrad might be said to have done—has something to recommend it too. Meanwhile, back in our bathtubs, we wait for the next ludlum.
May 8, 1986