You’re halfway there in the movie business if you have an unoriginal idea. That’s because original ideas need market testing. The producers and executives of today would look askance at the blockbusters of yore were they put in front of them. Why take a chance on something called “Star Wars” if the audience hadn’t heard of Luke Skywalker? (Of course, if it had, and you were George Lucas, you’d do your level best to empty their pockets of every last penny and then ask them to take out a loan against their pension to buy their kids the life-sized action figures you advertised sixteen times during last Saturday morning’s cartoons.) 2009 probably boasts the most uninspired roster anyone’s ever seen.
Gird yourself. This year sees the release of Hannah Montana (TV adaptation), The Informers (book adaptation), Watchmen (comic book adaptation), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (third sequel of a comic book adaptation), Star Trek (rebooting of an over-sequeled franchise), Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (sequel to a TV adaptation), Angels and Demons (prequel to a book adaptation), Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (third in a series), Fast and Furious (fourth in a series), Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (third in a series), Terminator Salvation (fourth in a series), Night at the Museum 2 (sequel), Crank: High Voltage (sequel), The Taking of Pelham 123 (remake of a remake of an adaptation of a book), Public Enemies (adaptation of real gangsters), 2012 (adaptation of an eschatology), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (sixth in a series of book adaptations), and G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra (TV and comic book adaptation). I think I’ve left a few out, and I’ve passed over the derivative but originally titled.
As trite as movies are, it’s only in the last few decades that they’ve caught up with books. Bestseller lists have long been plagued by the familiar, and so we come to what may be the ne plus ultra of sequeldom, Eric Van Lustbader’s The Bourne Deception: seventh in a series adopted from a deceased author with three movie adaptations and another planned.
Robert Ludlum wrote the first three books of the Jason Bourne series between 1980 and 1990. He was, and still is, a wildly popular author – nearly 300 million copies of his books somehow exist. The Bourne Identity (the movie adapted from the first book) was released in 2002 and made over $200 million worldwide. The franchise was reborn, but Ludlum died, inconveniently, in 2001. So Lustbader, who’d finished two of Ludlum’s incomplete novels, started work on the (unintentionally?) tactlessly named Bourne Legacy, released in 2004, a month before the second movie. The Bourne Betrayal followed in 2007, a month before the third movie. Lustbader churned out The Bourne Sanction a year later. 2009 brings us the newest in proper nouned-nouns.
Jason Bourne – formerly Cain, formerly Delta, formerly David Webb – can never escape his past, which consisted of having been (in reverse chronological order, as near as I can tell) an assassination target, linguistics professor, contract assassin, death-squad member, and Foreign Service officer. The big gimmick of the series is that Bourne has amnesia, so he can’t remember his former life as a nasty person. What he does remember comes in flashbacks. Naturally with a résumé like that, all sorts of people try to kill him, and the story commences as Bourne travels around trying to figure out why he fits into the latest conspiracy to take over the world. Along the way he meets shadowy people and has more flashbacks and kills other assassins employed by more shadowy people and tries to figure out not so much who he was, but who he is. A Bourne novel is your typical spy-thriller with a touch of hammy existential dread.
This formula is limiting but okay if it’s well-executed. But if the author of a spy-thriller not only fails on execution but at the same times strives for something more, and if that something is profound commentary on the nature of existence, then he’s produced a special kind of terrible. The only time The Bourne Deception isn’t bad is when it’s really bad.
The latest in Bourne-hood finds our eponymous hero living it up in Bali with his girlfriend Moira. Of course someone tracks him down and tries to kill him, and Bourne, shot through the chest but saved by a “congenital abnormality” in the shape of his heart – the first drop in a deluge of plot conveniences – manages to fake his death. As he sets about finding his would-be assassin, Bourne is drawn into a scheme to bring about an American invasion of Iran and simultaneously concentrate all the power of the US intelligence services in the hands of the evil Secretary of Defense, who carries out his plans through an unscrupulous military contractor named Black River (a lamely obvious swipe at Blackwater), headed by Noah Perlis, a man with ties to Jason’s past. Also there’s a bad guy named Arkadin who blames our hero for the death of his beloved and plans to kill Bourne and take over the Russian mafia and a militant Islamic group at the same time. Whatever.
In the midst of the ensuing continent-hopping (can’t have a spy thriller without continent-hopping), Lustbader puts his protagonist, and apparently everyone else in the book, through an identity crisis. Who am I? What have I become? Do mirrors have the answer? If so, why do they over-explain?
…he saw his reflection staring back at him as if from out of some mythic, sentient forest. The paleness of his face startled him. It was as if he were looking at a future version of himself who was already dead, a version from whom the fire of life had been suddenly and cruelly drained, not by time but by circumstance. In that face he recognized not himself, but some stranger who had stepped into his life and, like a puppet master, had directed his hands and feet onto a ruinous path.
That’s the prose of someone thinking 24 frames-per-second, who’s realized that his viewers are actually readers and feels the need to explain the symbolism in every cliché he comes up with. And Lustbader explains everything.
Where a word would do, a sentence presents itself. Where a sentence would do, a paragraph blossoms. Bourne is shot in the chest in Deception’s prologue, and he nurses the wound for the rest of the book. On page 344, in the aftermath of a big fight, and after the book’s dozen previous fights and their dozen attendant chest pains, there’s this:
Pain suffused him, radiating out from the bullet would he’d sustained in Bali [the only bullet wound he has]. His violent actions and the beating he had taken had a deleterious effect on his healing, just as Dr. Firth had warned. Just like after the second surgery, he felt like he’d been struck by a speeding train.
Lustbader sits next you as you read, prologue to finale, poking you in the side and shouting “Hey idiot! Remember that!” And when he’s not shoving wooden footnotes into the text, Lustbader is elaborating in other, more ridiculous ways.
By the end of the book I’d come to hate the simile. A character slides something across the table “as if maneuvering his queen into checkmate position.” Jason Bourne’s memories are “dark and murky, as if seen through a projector with a faulty bulb.” Sometimes similes pile up. A character looks at a villain and
It was as if he were looking at a photograph of eyes rather than the real thing…It was as if there was no one home, as if the soul of the man did not exist…like something ancient and evil.
Sometimes they’re hopelessly awkward. Here’s a complete sentence describing a battlefield:
Great mounds of black earth, scorched and smoking as if from the pits of the underworld, half-covered random bits and pieces of bodies, as if some insane creature had decided to improve on the human form by first dismantling it.
Sometimes you get the Lustbader triple-decker: simile, metaphor, anthropomorphism.
Coming home to the desert, Soraya thought, was like returning to a longed-for lover: The sand whispered against your skin in intimate caress. In the desert you could see things coming at you. Which was why people like Amun lied, because the desert told the truth, always, in the history it covered and uncovered, in the bones of civilization from which the eternal sand had scoured away all lies.
|Lustbader also transmogrifies in the bedchamber. “She used to trace the line of his lips when he smiled like that, as if she were a blind woman able to glean a hidden meaning with her fingertip.” My favorite? “Soraya felt Amun beside her as if he were a small nuclear plant.”|
All this flowery language is too much in earnest to be tongue-in-cheek, but it’s also meant to be part of something deeper. “Morning broke in the soft colors of pink and yellow against the pale blue sky. Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva rose as Bourne opened his eyes.” Grounding the story in Bali allows Lustbader to employ a foofaraw of goofy spiritualism. By the end of the novel, we’re not sure if Bourne survives (as he must) by his own skill or by the will of Shiva, who apparently watches over him. Shiva, you see, is not only the god of destruction, but the god of recreation too. It’s totally symbolic.
And our author sees Bali with Orientalist eyes. “Balinese were aware of everything and forgot nothing.” Their young move “in that liquid, sinuous way of all Balinese children.” Jason visits a holy man (“skin dark as mahogany”) who tells him about Shiva. Bourne doesn’t believe it at first, but he comes around. You can’t blame him. Majestic sunrises begin every day (“light shone upward like a beacon beating back the tattered remnants of night”). He can’t escape a gunfight without running into a stuffy nincompoop spouting metaphysical nonsense (“Life is dangerous, Jason, like anything governed by chaos”). Mirrors are everywhere (“Bourne regarded his face in the mirror…Whose reflection stared back at him?”).
Lustbader isn’t just spiritual but topical as well. Bourne’s adventures take place in what is nominally present-day earth, and Deception takes a stab at trenchancy. Thus good-guy Soraya falls for Amun Chalthoum, he of the diminutive nuclear plant, also head of the Egyptian intelligence service. She’s in love but “the trouble was that too often his trade included methods of interrogation and torture that would make even those running Abu Ghraib sick to their stomachs.” Lustbader shoehorns an awkward nod to animal rights into a chase through a bullfighting stadium. He describes a bullfight and the excitement of the crowd. Then: “At least, that’s how these corrida fans saw it. Others, like the Asociación para la defensa del anima, saw quite another picture.” Occasionally the editorializing doesn’t smack you in the face. There’s shrewd commentary on semantics: “[Bad guy] Parker liked the word homeland. It was so much more powerful, more evocative, more virile than the word nation.” But just when you think it’s nice to read a shoot-em-up that brushes up against sophistication, good-guy Moira calls her security firm “Heartland Risk Management,” and you know Lustbader missed the irony.
The plot is just as careless: a bad guy trusts a character the good guys are using to spy on him in a book where no one trusts anybody; a random tour guide near a building Bourne wants to get into just happens to have a cousin working in said building. And the clichés are worse: the mirror scene; the deserted parking lot; the wise old gangster; the wise old native; the wise young native; bad guy who blames good guy for the death of his beloved even though it obviously wasn’t his fault.
Gore Vidal reviewed the top ten bestsellers in 1972, noting:
…most of these books reflect to some degree the films each author saw in his formative years, while at least seven of the novels appear to me to be deliberate attempts not so much to re-create new film product as to suggest old movies that will make the reader (and publisher and reprinter and, to come full circle, film-maker) recall past success and respond accordingly.
Vidal was writing before the modern blockbuster, before Jaws and Star Wars and their countless imitators. Popular movies and bestselling books have been locked in a terminal co-orbit since. They increasingly speak the same symbolic language, comfortable and infantile. The only thing that distinguishes them is the medium. Lustbader can pile on all the god-awful rococo similies he wants, but people keep coming back to this stuff because piffle is easy. Reader and writer nod to each other when the hero glimpses himself in the mirror (what have I become?), when the young native whispers a profundity (modern society has lost simplicity and thus wisdom), when the sun rises in the prologue (clouds must form and deranged assassins are coming).
Near the beginning, a skeptical Jason Bourne visits the hut (it wouldn’t be a condo) of the holy mahogany man, who tells him gravely, “You know, all this has happened before. And it will happen again.”
Mahogany man speaks truth. The Bourne Objective is scheduled for next year.
Greg Waldmann is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs. He is Open Letters Monthly‘s Politics Editor.