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…

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