The Bourne Identity
The Bourne Identity is about not knowing what the heck is going on.
If you've ever had someone come up to you at a party and say, "Hi! So great to see you!" and realized, deep down in your heart, that you have absolutely no idea who they are; if you've ever turned a corner in your car and realized that you are so utterly lost you aren't even sure what city you're in; if you've ever been a kid on the first day of kindergarten, then you know that sinking, fish-so-far-out-of-water-you're-not-even-sure-what-water-is feeling that plagues Jason Bourne throughout the novel.
Bourne has amnesia. He doesn't even know what his really name is (hint: it's not Jason Bourne). He's pulled nearly dead out of the Mediterranean Sea…and soon he's racing across Western Europe with everybody and their hired thugs determined to kill him, including some international terrorist assassin named Carlos. It's just like opening the closet door and discovering you've walked into the wrong-sex bathroom. And then all the occupants try to shoot you.
Robert Ludlum, the author of The Bourne Identity, specialized in Cold War spy-thriller novels in which one innocent dude is chased by gaggles of cold-eyed thugs through death-defying plot twists, narrative switchbacks, and right over the occasional leap of logic. The Bourne Identity from 1980 may be Ludlum's most famous book, not least because it gets the formula so right.
Bonking Jason Bourne on the head and erasing his memory at the outset means he's more innocent than any three innocent people you can name put together—and the overwhelming, confusing, dangerous forces arrayed against him look even more overwhelming, confusing, and dangerous than they would if Bourne actually had a clue. Aided only by an array of surprising skills he didn't know he had—and a beautiful Canadian economist named Marie St. Jacques, who falls in love with him, despite it all—Bourne (not his real name) takes on the whole world…and triumphs.
He doesn't triumph just once, either. The Bourne Identity was so successful that Bourne got to forget everything he knew over and over and over, in various media. The novel was turned into a television movie in 1988 and then into a full-length feature film in 2002. Ludlum wrote two sequels (The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum), both of which have also been turned into films. And then there's a whole posse of other sequels written by people who aren't Ludlum, sort of in the way that Bourne isn't Bourne.
Confusion is popular, maybe because everyone can relate.
Why Should I Care?
Harry Potter finds out he's a wizard. Bella in Twilight finds out that she's always been meant to be a vampire. Clark Kent finds out he's an alien rocketed from the planet Krypton. All across popular culture, some average, everyday schmo discovers that he or she is not just any schmo, but a schmo with powers. A schmo with a mission.A schmo just like you or me, if you or me were super-cool and not really schmos at all.
The Bourne Identity takes all those stories of schmos discovering their inner cool kid and goes them one better. Your protagonists don't know that they're wizards or vampires or space aliens? Big deal says Robert Ludlum. My protagonist doesn't even know his name!
As readers, we're just like Jason Bourne: we don't have a clue about what's up in this world, either. Bourne (who doesn't even have a name at the beginning of the book) knows nothing when the novel starts — just like us. Bourne slowly untangles the plot as he goes along—just like us. He learns who he is and figures out who his enemies are and decodes his past—just like us.
Being in the same position as Bourne makes it super easy to identify with him. And, as one character asks, "Who is the man out there?" (19.188) Who is this dude we identify with? A supercool hunk of total superspy awesome. Because we have to figure out the plot along with Bourne, we're sort of turned into superspies, too. The "man out there" is also us, reading the book. Like Bourne, we're the innocent schmo as superspy.
Ludlum's book is not just a spy thriller, then: it's also an amazingly deft machine for schmo empowerment. The opening pages, in which the protagonist is dropped in the ocean, mirror the book itself, with its rushing, headlong narrative, taking us out of one life and into another. Sure, all books do that to some degree—but few do it with such shameless, blatant genius as The Bourne Identity.