The same old villains
Jason Bourne is up against a new enemy in his sixth outing—a Muslim terrorist group that was set up by the Nazis in the darkest days of World War II. “Heinrich Himmler…saw Islam as a masculine, war-like religion that featured certain key qualities in common with his SS philosophy, mainly blind obedience, the willingness for self-sacrifice, total lack of compassion for the enemy,” a character in The Bourne Sanction by Eric van Lustbader tells Bourne, who is biding his time as a professor of linguistics at an American university.
The plot hangs by this thin thread. Crime novels and thrillers depend as much on the villain as they do on the hero. Lustbader tries to keep the old and successful franchise alive by fusing two of the most effective sets of villains in the Western crime pantheon—the Nazis of yesteryears and the Islamist terrorists of today. He also touches upon the third group of villains: Russian communists, who are indirectly responsible for the birth of the venomous and embittered Black Legion, because of what Stalin did to the Muslim nationalities in his murderous empire.
The verdict: Watch the movies rather than read the new Bourne book.
Like all Bourne books, including the three Ludlum originals, this is a busy one, with fists, knives and guns brandished every few pages. The pace is good and you are carried by the flow of events. But the characters are flat, and the writing indifferent at times. A lot of Washington politics is also on offer as competing intelligence agencies try to grab territory from one another.
But if you are ready to put aside the temptation to compare this novel with the Ludlum originals and blank out memories of the excellent films starring Matt Damon, The Bourne Sanction is worth a read on a lazy weekend. Time pass, as we say in India.
Few authors have faced public humiliation like James Frey has. In 2006, Oprah Winfrey chose his 2003 memoir A Million Little Pieces for her book club and after discovering that he had fabricated parts of it, took Frey to task on her show—asking him to explain why he lied about his life as a junkie in prison. Frey cringed—and became a household name in the US.
His new book, Bright Shiny Morning is thankfully a work of fiction. It even comes with a humorous warning: “Nothing in this book should be considered accurate or reliable”. The hype is expectedly colossal. HarperCollins had reportedly signed him on for an advance of $1.5 million (around Rs6.5 crore).
Bright Shiny Morning: By James Frey, Harper, 512 pages, Rs995.
Even so, Frey’s novel—about a few lost souls in Los Angeles—is not as engrossing as his first. Bright Shiny Morning tries to be the great Los Angeles novel. About one-fifth of it consists of one-sentence facts about the city—for example, Los Angeles has a museum dedicated entirely to bananas. Every historical moment of LA, every demographic, every neighbourhood is tirelessly harped on.
Do we really care? Los Angeles is the city of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski; it thrives on glamour, ambition and failed ambition; we’ve seen it in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard.
To his credit, Frey, too, begins with an interesting cast of characters: a young couple from Ohio who have come to escape the cruelty and small-mindedness of their families; a Mexican housekeeper struggling to find self-worth despite her white mistress’ prejudices; a vain, closeted movie star willing to do anything to get the man he loves; and many caricatures of the Beverly Hills and Skid Row milieu.
Cliché collapses on cliché as the characters try to redeem themselves in the big, bad city. Frey’s prose is free of conventional syntax and punctuation, which is supposed to be an experiment, but which instead makes it a tiring, tough read.