Jason Bourne Returns in Lustbader's Latest

Glenn McCarty

Author: Eric Van Lustbader
Title: The Bourne Ascendancy
Publisher: Grand Central

Poor Jason Bourne. The hero of Robert Ludlum’s string of best-selling novels and the blockbuster movie franchise starring Matt Damon has lived a most woeful – albeit it exciting – existence since he we met him floating in the Mediterranean Sea in The Bourne Identity all those years ago (over 30 in book form; 12 on the silver screen). Since 2004, Bourne’s property has been handed over to Eric Van Lustbader for a string of novels sanctioned by Ludlum’s estate. The venues change, but the beat goes on for the bedraggled super-spy – globe-trotting, alias-assuming, day-saving missions of life-or-death importance. Yet in The Bourne Ascendency, the ninth and most recent novel from Lustbader’s pen, the franchise seems to be running down like a tired clock.

In Ascendency, following the simultaneous assassination of the foreign ministers of seven nations during a summit in Doha, Qatar, Bourne finds himself yanked into the evil scheme of fearsome terror kingpin El Ghadan, who makes Bourne an offer he can’t refuse – assassinate the President of the United States during an upcoming historic peace summit in Singapore or Ghadan will kill hostage Soraya Moore and her daughter Sonya. Moore is the former director of Treadstone the CIA division which essentially “built” Jason Bourne – programming him to be the amnesiac super-spy he was. Whether or not Bourne still harbors feelings for Soraya is left vague, but according to Lustbader, “her image was forever etched into his memory.” Bourne immediately leaps into action, complying with Ghadan and going into deep cover mode, first in Afghanistan, then throughout the Middle East, all with the unenviable task of attempting to appear to be moving forward with the assassination plan, while simultaneously undermining it.

For fans of spy thrillers, Ascendency will no doubt be deeply immersive. There are double and triple-crosses, political conspiracies, and a typically maniacal villain. These are all as to be expected. But what’s noticeably absent from this entry in the Bourne canon is, in a word, Bourne. Ascendency reads more like an ensemble piece, and in splitting the action amongst nearly a half-dozen main characters spread across a global stage, Lustbader risks dividing the reader’s attention from what likely brought them to the show in the first place – the nearly superhuman abilities and personal pathos of Jason Bourne. If ever there was an archetypal tortured hero, Bourne is it. But Bourne does neither brood nor perform incredible feats of espionage with much regularity here.

The slow build which Lustbader employs throughout the novel’s nearly 500 pages (in ebook form) succeeds in raising the stakes to an incredible level of tension by the time all parties’ paths cross at the summit in Singapore. But what’s sacrificed in the process is a great deal of momentum. Not that books like this need to rocket from Point A to Point B. But this book feels bloated, like in addition to simple things like an excess of adverbs, or whole scenes, or even plot points, could have been trimmed to achieve greater impact.

Millions of fans have thrilled to, and identified with, the exploits of Jason Bourne. Perhaps it’s because in the era of disloyal political leadership, the idea of a man without a country alone against the whims of circumstance seems particularly plausible. Or maybe it’s deeper, the romantic idea of the nomadic wanderer in search of a home. Regardless, Bourne deserves to live on. But doesn’t he deserve a more lively story in which to participate?

*Published 6/24/2014