A ROBERT LUDLUM book needs no publicity to suceed. Whether reviewers are universally savage or effusive seems irrelevant: the book is bound to be a best seller. The bourne identify, the latest Ludlum thriller, is already on both the national and Washington Post best-seller lists and the damned thing won't officially be published until March 26.So much for the power of the press.
Ludlum writes what Graham Greene called "entertainments." An entertainment may be silly, as this one is; it may be shallow and hastily written, as this one is; its characters may be drawn from Spiderman or a similar comic book, as is the case with these characters. It doesn't matter. Millions are going to read it, Ludlum is going to chuckle again on his way to the bank and otherwise sensible people are going to sit up far into the night. Why? Because he puts the hook into us. We have to know how it all comes out. That is the gift of a master storyteller, even when his story is abusrd.
Ludlum begins The Bourne Identity, as Snoopy always begins his stories, on a dark and stormy night. A man, shot up from his ankles to his brain cage, is fished out of the Mediterranean, is turned over to a drunken doctor and is nursed back to physical health. But he has no memory. The only clue to who he is and whence he came is a snippet of microfilm implanted under the skin of his hip. It records the number of a Swiss bank account.
From there a bloody series of events takes out amnesiac hero-villain to Switzerland, Paris, New York and various waterfront dives. Along the way, as "Jason Bourne" searches for his identity, the body count nearly come to match that of Ludlum's last book, The Matarese Circle. Once again he brings in the CIA, international assassins and vigorous sex (this time with an auburn-haired Canadian lady possessed of a Ph.D.). To these he adds an aged French general with a passionate popsy for a wife, a crazed Amercian spy and men in cassocks who perform strange acts in the confessional of a great cathedral. Your ordinary collection of citizens, in other words.
Bourne, who is not Bourne, is shot, stabbed, beaten, hurled out of cars and windows. But naturally he has marvelous recuperative powers. Your ordinary Ludlum hero, in other words.
There is clearly no redeeming social value here, whatever that may be. There are no memorable characters (after 24 hours I could remember none of the names). The dialogue is trite, the writing pedestrian, and the jacket copy asserts that this is Ludlum's "deepest and finest novel."
It is in fact a lousy book. So I stayed up until 3 a.m. to finish it. Storytellers like Ludlum sink their hooks into us and there is only one way to wriggle free. You have to know how it all comes out.