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Bourne Identity Book Essay

The Bourne Identity is a little like a hyper-excited dog who races spastically to the kitchen and over to the bed and back to the bathroom and then up on the table and onto the chandelier before leaping up on her owner who just walked in the door.

The ultimate goal (whether "good dog slobbers on owner!" or "good guy wins!") isn't really all that complicated, but the path to get there can be. So this summary is going to try to just hit the biggest of the big points, ignoring the chandelier-jumping and getting the dog to the door as efficiently as possible.

We start out with some random guy dumped in the Mediterranean Sea. He gets pulled out by some fishermen, who deliver him to Dr. Geoffrey Washburn, a drunk with a heart of gold. Washburn fixes him up and finds a piece of microfilm in his hip (you read that right) that contains information about a bank account in Europe. From this and other telltale signs, Washburn cleverly deduces that there is more to this amnesiac than meets the eye. This is confirmed when the amnesiac uses some sort of super martial art to beat the stuffing out of a bunch of locals who are bothering him.

Having annoyed those locals, and with a bank account beckoning, the amnesiac toddles off across Europe to Zurich, where he discovers that said bank account contains whopping piles of moolah—and that his name is Jason Bourne (which means the book can finally refer to him by name, causing the prose to sigh audibly in relief). He also finds out that he worked for something called the Treadstone Corporation, though he doesn't have any luck getting in touch with his employers.

Bourne barely has a moment to enjoy his new wealth and given name, though, before he's attacked coming out of the bank by a bunch of bad guys. To escape them, he kidnaps a beautiful Canadian economist named Marie St. Jacques. She is, as you'd imagine, peeved, and she eventually manages to escape—only to be caught by the bad guys, one of whom rapes her.

Bourne manages to track Marie down and rescue her, but he's badly wounded in the process. Marie's grateful to him for the rescue, and she helps him recuperate in a hotel room, where he explains that he's an amnesiac. The two fall in love, because that's what leading men and leading ladies do, and Marie starts calling him "darling" all the time, because leading ladies apparently do that, too. We're relieved to learn that amnesia's not a problem, as long as you're in love.

Bourne thinks the answers to his identity are in Paris, so he and Marie go there. Marie, as a whiz international economist, helps Bourne get his hands on the money from Zurich. (We're not sure how these credentials qualify her to get that money, but far be it from us to question superspy logic.)

Bourne and Marie make further discoveries connecting Bourne to an international terrorist assassin known as Carlos the Jackal. Bourne fears hemay have been an assassin himself—perhaps a minion who betrayed Carlos. Marie assures him that he's a good guy, because otherwise how could she ever call him "darling"?

Bourne discovers that Carlos is using a high-end fashion house, of all places, to route messages. Bourne interrogates Jacqueline Lavier, the head of the fashion house. She explains that Bourne was an assassin who performed a series of spectacular kills to challenge Carlos's supremacy. This upsets Bourne, who is willing to terrorize random fashionistas but was really hoping he was not a horrible stone-cold murderer.

Bourne plans to leave Marie, because he now thinks that he's no good for her, baby. But before he can do the noble thing, a newspaper story apparently planted by Carlos appears, implicating Marie in a massive global theft. Since she's now running from the law as well, Bourne figures he'd better stick by her.

Somewhere around here, the novel hops across the Atlantic Ocean to Treadstone in New York, which, it turns out, is a super secret U.S. government operation that employed Bourne as a deep-cover agent (known as "Cain") whose mission was to trap and kill Carlos. In one of the novel's more realistic twists, the U.S. government's top-secret super-efficient spy apparatus turns out to be ludicrously incompetent, and Carlos's agents kill everyone associated with Treadstone without even breaking a sweat. Carlos makes it look like Bourne did the killing, so now U.S. intelligence, in all its oxymoronic glory, is after our hero, too.

Clues from the fashion house lead Bourne and Marie to the phone number of General Villiers, a hugely respected war hero and right-wing political figure in France. At first, Bourne thinks Villiers is in cahoots with Carlos, but he soon finds out that Carlos killed the Villiers's beloved son.It's not Villiers but his young wife Angélique who is the sneak. She turns out to be Carlos's cousin, confidant, and lover. Villiers keeps tabs on her for a while—but, incensed by her behavior, he eventually... kills her.

WhileVilliersis busy murdering his wife, Bourne has a meeting with a U.S. intelligence officer named Conklin, who tries to kill him—but, of course, completely fails, because Bourne is the hero of our novel. Now Bourne knows Treadstone (or what's left of it) is after him. Bourne decides his best bet is to get Villiers to say that Bourne killed his wife, who is also Carlos's lover, which will really get Carlos going. Bourne will then go to New York, letting Carlos know he is going there. Bourne plans to kill him there, at which point U.S. intelligence will leave him alone.

If that seems shaky…well, it is. But the main point is that there is a big showdown in New York with violence and shooting and dead minions. Villiers and Marie go to U.S. intelligence and finally convince them that Bourne is not a bad guy, and with the help of Marie they go in and rescue him, though (oops) Carlos manages to escape.Bourne catches a glimpse of Carlos's face, which he knows is the face of a famous figure, though he can't quite place him.

As Bourne recuperates, intelligence officers explain to Marie that Bourne's real name is David Webb. He was a Foreign Service Officer whose Thai wife and two children were killed in Vietnam by an airplane attack. Webb became a guerilla fighter in a special unit called Medusa. One of his men, named Jason Bourne, betrayed Medusa on a mission, and Webb killed him. After the war, Webb was recruited for the Treadstone project to destroy Carlos and went into deep cover, taking the name Jason Bourne and the alias Cain, pretending to be an assassin to lure Carlos out of hiding and trap him. The novel ends as U.S. intelligence promises to protect Webb around the clock, and Marie and Bourne (now Webb) reunite.

The end…though Carlos is still out there, and nothing we've seen so far in the novel suggests that U.S. intelligence can find its left foot with state-of-the-art sonar, much less protect Jason Bourne or Cain or David Webb or whatever he wants to call himself. So the stage is set for sequels and carnage and tragedy and, incredibly, even more pages—though for now we are, in fact, done.


The Bourne Identity is the perfect spy novel. Not the perfect novel, mind you (it’s got some definite flaws), but the perfect spy novel.* It’s also probably more responsible even than the James Bond books for making me a fan of the genre. I first read it in sixth grade—the same year I discovered Bond. (I suppose I was a late bloomer in that respect.) Up until then, I’d been voraciously devouring Hardy Boys books. Then my Aunt Joan gave me a pair of Robert Ludlum novels for Christmas (the other one was The Gemini Contenders), and my life was forever changed. I was absolutely transfixed by this exciting world of assassins and spies and Swiss banks and fiches confidentielles and gunfights and car chases through faraway European streets. And I was utterly absorbed by the twistiest, cleverest, most intricate plot my hungry young mind had yet encountered. That plot probably attracted me most of all. Sure, I fully appreciated the escapist aspects of the genre—particularly those faraway, exotic European cities. But I skipped the phase of wanting to be a spy. From the moment I read The Bourne Identity, I wanted to write about spies. What other genre lent itself to plots so ingeniously complex? My steady diet of Franklin W. Dixon was suddenly interspersed with regular doses of Ludlum (the brick-like paperbacks comically thick compared to the slim Hardy Boys Casefiles), John Gardner (whose Bond novels at the time were easier to come by than his predecessor’s), and, when I could find them, Ian Fleming (the initial thirst simply to get my hands on every book led directly to my appetite for collecting the first editions and various paperback runs).

Then, eventually, sometime in high school as I became exposed to more and more great literature, I developed that literary snobbishness common in avid readers of that age. While nothing would ever take away the enjoyment his books had given me upon first reading them, I became dismissive of Ludlum as a writer. For years (right up until the early days of this blog, I’m ashamed to admit), I snarkily reflected that I had gone directly from Hardy Boys to Ludlum, and that the quality of the prose hadn’t changed, just the amount of sex and violence and complexity of the plots. How wrong I was, colored by that sad superiority that tends to accompany the transition from adolescence into adulthood. Upon re-reading Ludlum as an adult, I find far more appreciation for his prose than I owned up to in those days of pretentious folly. He’s a far better writer than the vast majority of his modern imitators who fill up today’s bestseller lists.

That said, The Bourne Identity is not his best written book. (That would probably be The Chancellor Manuscript.) The dialogue is atypically clunky at times (what couples repeatedly refer to each other as “my love, my love, my only love?”), the romance is forced at first (only the events that drive the couple together; after that the relationship between Bourne and Marie is actually one of the better pairings in the genre), and some subplots are forgotten about and left unresolved. But none of that for one instant affects the furious pace with which readers are propelled from page to page, because The Bourne Identity boasts far and away Ludlum’s most ingenious premise and most ingenious plot. And the two things should not be mistaken, as they were in the Matt Damon movies.

The simple premise** is: A man is pulled from the sea riddled with bullets and without a memory. His quest to find his identity leads to disturbing implications that he might be an assassin. That premise in itself is brilliant enough that it’s been repurposed in countless other films and stories (including The Long Kiss Goodnight, XIII and Noir) to the point that assassins and amnesia have become almost inseparable in popular culture, and that it managed to serve as the entire plot (not just premise) for the blockbuster series of Matt Damon Bourne movies. That’s a shame, though, because Ludlum’s actual plot is far more complex and far more interesting. In the Damon films, the man with amnesia discovers that he was an assassin and is appalled. In the Ludlum book, the hero keeps discovering new information about himself. At first, the clues point toward his being an assassin, then toward something else, then back toward assassin, then toward a secret agent pretending to be an assassin, then back to assassin (and an even worse one at that), and eventually towards a far, far more complex background than the films ever explore. I feel like I could support my thesis better here if I could go into detail about those layers, but I would hate to spoil the discovery for first-time readers of the book who are familiar only with the dumbed-down simplicity of the film’s story. Suffice it to say, the truth of Bourne’s identity in the book is far more interesting, more rewarding and more morally complex than in the movies, and it’s a shame that the films didn’t follow Ludlum’s template. And the secretive Treadstone program of Ludlum’s covert world is infinitely more fascinating (and possibly disturbing) than the mere super- soldier factory it's presented as in the films.

The hero of Ludlum’s novel is pulled from the Mediterranean and treated by a benevolent but drunken English doctor named Washburn. He has no memory, and the only clue to his identity (besides the bullets the doctor pulled out of him) is the number of a Swiss bank account implanted under his skin. There’s also evidence that he’s undergone significant plastic surgery. Why? Who is he? What was he? To answer these questions, the patient ventures to Zurich by way of Marseilles, hoping the bank account will hold the answers he’s looking for. Along the way he discovers that he’s an exceptionally skilled fighter, that he’s fluent in several languages, and that people he doesn’t know want him dead. The Zurich account does provide him with a name, Jason Bourne, and a great deal of money (millions and millions), but ultimately it raises more questions than it answers. It also triggers something called a fiche confidentielle (a phrase that always stuck with me), alerting mysterious other parties of his transaction. One of these parties doesn’t want him to leave the bank alive, and a gunfight breaks out. Bourne barely escapes.

Suddenly on the run, Bourne relies on instincts he doesn’t quite understand and certainly doesn't approve of. Following such an instinct, he finds himself taking a hostage in order to get out of a bad situation. That hostage is Canadian economist Marie St. Jacques. At first she’s understandably terrified of her captor, but after he returns to save her from being raped by one of the mysterious killers on his trail when he could have fled, she changes her opinion of Jason Bourne. Suddenly, she wants to help the man who kidnapped her. While the germ of their relationship seems somewhat improbable, the actual relationship that develops is quite strong, and Marie proves not only to be Ludlum’s best female character up to that point, but also one of the best female characters in the male-dominated genre of spy fiction as it stood in 1980. Whereas previous Ludlum love interests were little more than damsels in distress (and frequently referred to by the male characters as “the girl”), Marie is a successful economist and smarter than Bourne. She isn’t just along for the ride; he couldn’t get out of his mess without her deductions and intuitions. In fact, she’s usually a step ahead of him, and if he would only listen to her ideas at several points in the story, he could extract himself from a bad situation with far more ease and far less bloodshed.

Bourne himself is a fascinating character as well. For a blank slate, he has quite a lot of personality. While he may have amazing combat skills—armed and unarmed—he is far from a suave know-it-all. In fact, he’s prone to fits of despair at his predicament, and has a tendency to always embrace the worst-case scenario. He frequently relies on nasty sarcasm to cope with nightmare situations that seem uncopable. Without Marie’s support, it’s doubtful he’d ever succeed at discovering his identity, or staying alive.

Also in the mix is the elusive real-life assassin/terrorist Carlos (later known as “Carlos the Jackal”). Various clues indicate that Bourne may have been hunting him, working for him, or competing with him in his pre-amnesia life. Whatever the case, it’s clear now that Carlos wants him dead, and he has a vast network of informants and thugs who will stop at nothing to carry out their master’s wishes. This is another area in which the book is infinitely superior to the film version. In Carlos, the book has a villain. The film is lacking one, and falls instead on the genre crutch/cliché of an evil CIA out to get its own agents. The CIA operatives in the book, like all parties concerned in this affair, are painted with shades of gray—not black or white.

Bourne’s journey of self-discovery takes him from the secretive banks of Zurich to the fashion houses and political circles of the Paris elite to the upscale brownstones of New York City where shadowy government officials hold secret meetings well outside of Washington. The book is a page-turner in the truest sense, packed with exciting fights, chases and escapes along with out-of-date but nonetheless riveting tips on tradecraft and secret banking (though Ludlum, who was adverse to fetishizing or even naming guns, makes that all too common mistake of repeatedly outfitting revolvers with silencers). But the primary engine propelling readers to furiously turn pages is not the action or even the characters, but that plot. Layer after layer after layer is peeled away, revealing an intelligence operation every bit as ingenious as that in le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. The Bourne Identity is Spy Writing 101, and absolutely essential reading for students of the genre. And, on top of that, it’s a hell of a read. There’s a reason it stayed with me all these years, and re-read today it still holds up as one of my very favorite spy novels.

Now all that's left is to apply the LTA, or Ludlum Title Analyzer, designed to parse out the rigid "The Proper NameNoun" formula and determine which titles make sense for the story they relate to, and which were generically generated in a panic to fit the formula.

Is the main character named Bourne? Yes! No. Um, sort of. It's complicated, but it's definitely relevant!
Is there an Identity? There certainly is!

The title fits, and I'd go so far as to suggest it's Ludlum's best.

*Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy manages to be both.

**This premise actually owes something to Phillip K. Dick’s 1966 short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” though the movie based on that story, Total Recall, in turn owes a lot to Ludlum's novel.


The Ludlum Dossier
Read my DVD review of The Holcroft Covenant (1986) here.
Read my book review of The Janson Directive (2002) here.
Read my book review of The Bourne Supremacy (1986) here.
Read my book review of The Holcroft Covenant (1978) here.
Read my book review of The Bourne Identity (1980) here.
Read my book review of The Sigma Protocol (2001) here.

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