The Bourne Identity is a little like a hyper-excited dog who races spastically to the kitchen and over to the bed and back to the bathroom and then up on the table and onto the chandelier before leaping up on her owner who just walked in the door.
The ultimate goal (whether "good dog slobbers on owner!" or "good guy wins!") isn't really all that complicated, but the path to get there can be. So this summary is going to try to just hit the biggest of the big points, ignoring the chandelier-jumping and getting the dog to the door as efficiently as possible.
We start out with some random guy dumped in the Mediterranean Sea. He gets pulled out by some fishermen, who deliver him to Dr. Geoffrey Washburn, a drunk with a heart of gold. Washburn fixes him up and finds a piece of microfilm in his hip (you read that right) that contains information about a bank account in Europe. From this and other telltale signs, Washburn cleverly deduces that there is more to this amnesiac than meets the eye. This is confirmed when the amnesiac uses some sort of super martial art to beat the stuffing out of a bunch of locals who are bothering him.
Having annoyed those locals, and with a bank account beckoning, the amnesiac toddles off across Europe to Zurich, where he discovers that said bank account contains whopping piles of moolah—and that his name is Jason Bourne (which means the book can finally refer to him by name, causing the prose to sigh audibly in relief). He also finds out that he worked for something called the Treadstone Corporation, though he doesn't have any luck getting in touch with his employers.
Bourne barely has a moment to enjoy his new wealth and given name, though, before he's attacked coming out of the bank by a bunch of bad guys. To escape them, he kidnaps a beautiful Canadian economist named Marie St. Jacques. She is, as you'd imagine, peeved, and she eventually manages to escape—only to be caught by the bad guys, one of whom rapes her.
Bourne manages to track Marie down and rescue her, but he's badly wounded in the process. Marie's grateful to him for the rescue, and she helps him recuperate in a hotel room, where he explains that he's an amnesiac. The two fall in love, because that's what leading men and leading ladies do, and Marie starts calling him "darling" all the time, because leading ladies apparently do that, too. We're relieved to learn that amnesia's not a problem, as long as you're in love.
Bourne thinks the answers to his identity are in Paris, so he and Marie go there. Marie, as a whiz international economist, helps Bourne get his hands on the money from Zurich. (We're not sure how these credentials qualify her to get that money, but far be it from us to question superspy logic.)
Bourne and Marie make further discoveries connecting Bourne to an international terrorist assassin known as Carlos the Jackal. Bourne fears hemay have been an assassin himself—perhaps a minion who betrayed Carlos. Marie assures him that he's a good guy, because otherwise how could she ever call him "darling"?
Bourne discovers that Carlos is using a high-end fashion house, of all places, to route messages. Bourne interrogates Jacqueline Lavier, the head of the fashion house. She explains that Bourne was an assassin who performed a series of spectacular kills to challenge Carlos's supremacy. This upsets Bourne, who is willing to terrorize random fashionistas but was really hoping he was not a horrible stone-cold murderer.
Bourne plans to leave Marie, because he now thinks that he's no good for her, baby. But before he can do the noble thing, a newspaper story apparently planted by Carlos appears, implicating Marie in a massive global theft. Since she's now running from the law as well, Bourne figures he'd better stick by her.
Somewhere around here, the novel hops across the Atlantic Ocean to Treadstone in New York, which, it turns out, is a super secret U.S. government operation that employed Bourne as a deep-cover agent (known as "Cain") whose mission was to trap and kill Carlos. In one of the novel's more realistic twists, the U.S. government's top-secret super-efficient spy apparatus turns out to be ludicrously incompetent, and Carlos's agents kill everyone associated with Treadstone without even breaking a sweat. Carlos makes it look like Bourne did the killing, so now U.S. intelligence, in all its oxymoronic glory, is after our hero, too.
Clues from the fashion house lead Bourne and Marie to the phone number of General Villiers, a hugely respected war hero and right-wing political figure in France. At first, Bourne thinks Villiers is in cahoots with Carlos, but he soon finds out that Carlos killed the Villiers's beloved son.It's not Villiers but his young wife Angélique who is the sneak. She turns out to be Carlos's cousin, confidant, and lover. Villiers keeps tabs on her for a while—but, incensed by her behavior, he eventually... kills her.
WhileVilliersis busy murdering his wife, Bourne has a meeting with a U.S. intelligence officer named Conklin, who tries to kill him—but, of course, completely fails, because Bourne is the hero of our novel. Now Bourne knows Treadstone (or what's left of it) is after him. Bourne decides his best bet is to get Villiers to say that Bourne killed his wife, who is also Carlos's lover, which will really get Carlos going. Bourne will then go to New York, letting Carlos know he is going there. Bourne plans to kill him there, at which point U.S. intelligence will leave him alone.
If that seems shaky…well, it is. But the main point is that there is a big showdown in New York with violence and shooting and dead minions. Villiers and Marie go to U.S. intelligence and finally convince them that Bourne is not a bad guy, and with the help of Marie they go in and rescue him, though (oops) Carlos manages to escape.Bourne catches a glimpse of Carlos's face, which he knows is the face of a famous figure, though he can't quite place him.
As Bourne recuperates, intelligence officers explain to Marie that Bourne's real name is David Webb. He was a Foreign Service Officer whose Thai wife and two children were killed in Vietnam by an airplane attack. Webb became a guerilla fighter in a special unit called Medusa. One of his men, named Jason Bourne, betrayed Medusa on a mission, and Webb killed him. After the war, Webb was recruited for the Treadstone project to destroy Carlos and went into deep cover, taking the name Jason Bourne and the alias Cain, pretending to be an assassin to lure Carlos out of hiding and trap him. The novel ends as U.S. intelligence promises to protect Webb around the clock, and Marie and Bourne (now Webb) reunite.
The end…though Carlos is still out there, and nothing we've seen so far in the novel suggests that U.S. intelligence can find its left foot with state-of-the-art sonar, much less protect Jason Bourne or Cain or David Webb or whatever he wants to call himself. So the stage is set for sequels and carnage and tragedy and, incredibly, even more pages—though for now we are, in fact, done.