Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Earnest, innocent, awkward, authentic—long on character and short on formal art (but that includes a blessed lack of artfulness)—Robert Pirsig’s book is an ungainly piece of do-it-yourself American Gothic. It is a novel, a travelogue, a quest, a set of lectures, and a secular confession, with some sketchy information on motorcycle maintenance thrown in for good measure. In his subtitle the author describes it as “an inquiry into values,” and it’s that too. But anything you call it, it’s also something else. They may seem silly, but these problems of nomenclature are symptomatic; the book is exasperating and impressive in about equal measure, which is to say greatly. It’s a completely heteroclite performance.
The book can be simply outlined. A father and his eleven-year-old son are traveling by motorcycle from Minnesota to San Francisco. At home there is a mother with another son, but they are unimportant—I mean they are just out of it, no names, no characters, no histories. The travelers are accompanied as far as Bozeman, Montana, by two friends on another motorcycle; but they are largely out of it too. (The narrator knows a lot about them, but says he doesn’t want to exploit his personal friends, so he doesn’t tell us anything, leaving us to wonder again what sort of book this is.) After Bozeman, father and son continue by themselves. Wearing motorcycle helmets and moving fast, the travelers are isolated not only from the outside world but from each other. They wave, point, and occasionally shout a word or two, but mostly they have to stop in order to talk, and even then they don’t say much, being uncommunicative to start with, often sulky, and generally exhausted after long hours on the motorcycle.
Thus the book mainly consists of a series of monologues or imaginary lay-sermons (Pirsig calls them, only half-derisively, “Chatauquas”) composed by the motorcycling father-author-narrator for delivery to a hypothetical reader. They are the book’s inquiry into value, though “quality” is the word the author prefers, and “the good” would do almost as well. His illustrations are drawn chiefly from teaching freshman rhetoric (which the author has done in the past, though he is a writer of technical manuals) and from motorcycle maintenance. But as the lectures proceed, these somewhat limited and undramatic topics fade; and from behind them emerges the real subject of the book, which is a spiritual and intellectual autobiography.
The narrator forces his mind toward a reckoning with a shadowy, Platonically-minded alter ego named “Phaedrus,” who is in effect the narrator himself, as he existed some three or four years ago before a nervous breakdown, electric shock therapy, and a spell in an asylum. Reliving this traumatic experience, trying to understand the threat that its continuing half-life poses to him and to his son, the narrator drives toward a new crisis, somehow surmounts it, and finally achieves (we are to understand) an affectionate relation with the scared, wretched, silent child on the saddle behind him. And so, with something like a sense of earned triumph, they at last enter San Francisco.
Thus crudely and no doubt unfairly reduced, the book (which defies one even to grasp it by its ungainly title: best, perhaps, to call it by an acronym, ZAAMM) must seem to consist of pieces held together with Scotch tape—yet this situation is responsible for one of its special and admirable effects. It is so precarious in every sense, so wobbly as a structure of either thought or feeling, that one is constantly expecting it to crash in the nearest ditch. The reader is lured on by the premonition of imminent disaster. When this anticipation for some reason comes to nothing, when the lecturer seems too secure on his podium, or his spiel sounds canned, then in fact things get sticky in ZAAMM. There is more than a touch of the Ancient Mariner in Mr. Pirsig, who is apt to fix you with his glittering eye and go on about “quality” or “gumption” for many unbroken pages.
There are moments too when he seems confirmed in the familiar combination of paranoia and self-pity. But either he or his editor has been able to dodge or jump over most of these traps; and the book moves forward, reeling and tottering to be sure, but sustained by a rich and vehement eloquence, and above all by its refusal to be careful or self-protective. Like the picaresque saints who precede him in the long tradition of American Romance, the hero of ZAAMM is a chance-taker, an odds-beater; we follow him in fear and trembling, and finally with a kind of love.
The fabulist is of course bound to be “ego-oriented” to the point of making the word “Zen” in the title more than commonly misleading. In fact, there’s precious little about Zen in the book. The title uses it as a twist on Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery, but the Zen approach to motorcycle maintenance doesn’t seem to involve much more than the familiar instructions of common sense. Read the manual carefully, buy good tools, don’t tighten the screws too much or you’ll strip the threads. Well, sure. But this falls a bit short of Zen, if it’s even heading in that direction. Indeed, it’s the overflowing and expansive, not the absorbed or emptied personality that Mr. Pirsig’s lecturer values. No particular surprises here; most Westerners seem to take what they call Zen in much this way, as Alka-Seltzer for a romanticism hangover. But the story rushes the narrator forward and backward, as a narration must—forward to his destiny, backward into the trauma that determined that destiny, always down, inside his character. As a novelist, Pirsig is more a rider than a repairer of motorcycles, with perhaps a streak of Evil Knievel in his disposition.
To say that the narrator’s “Chatauquas” sound on occasion like L. Ron Hubbard on his way to discovering dianetics may sound like a putdown; but it’s one source of his appeal. He wants a larger definition of reason than can be built out of merely reasonable materials, a technology of the heart, a unified field theory of man and the cosmos. Naturally our feelings are all with him. So the lectures out of which ZAAMM is largely constructed work like isometric exercises. Because they are abstract, remote from the child behind him who constitutes, after all, the narrator’s only human environment, they are hateful. But because they represent an ideal, fragile vision of things after which, against expectation, we aspire, they are precious. I haven’t very often seen this particular fictional dilemma spread its horns so disturbingly.
As a four-square, feet-on-the-ground thinker, Pirsig leaves us bemused and quizzical; as a teller of stories, he disturbs more than he ingratiates, but the way values now stand, that’s all to the good. His work mainly depends on the quality of his writing, and about this I don’t think there can be two opinions. He is a stunning writer of fictional prose. With a minimum of apparatus, he can evoke a landscape or intimate a deep sense of uneasiness, allow a mood to evaporate, or touch us with compassion. Yet there’s very little overwriting.
For example, “Phaedrus” slowly impinges on the narrator from the murk of the past, with his obsessed and disturbing demand on the constitution of things, and this threat of the narrator’s total breakdown is mirrored in the silent tensions of the boy Chris. Taking place as it does in a sealed social void, the novel depends heavily on Chris as an unspoiled source of value. But as he is a center of feeling, he is also a magnet for any lint of pathos or mawkishness that happens to be floating in the atmosphere. It is to Mr. Pirsig’s credit that he has been able to keep the relationship of Chris to his father clean and strong. He can write dramatically even about ideas that strike one as sleazy; the “Chatauquas” at their best have a mobile and self-deriding way with the rhetoric of truth-telling that seems distinctively American, in the tradition of Huck Finn, Augie March, and the Dharma Bums.
Paradoxically, the novel has a sharper line as a stream of sensations than it does as an organized story. Zen and motorcycle maintenance dominate the earlier pages; but they represent the solution to a problem that is defined only in the last part of the book. That leaves them hanging out, so to speak: more like picturesque properties than working components. Or to put it another way, “Phaedrus” represents the ghost that the present mature narrator must track down and lay; yet “Phaedrus” also, as Platonist and Buddha-seeker, represents much of the answer to the narrator’s monstrous problem.
“Phaedrus” contains all sorts of freaky ingredients. The narrator entertains a private notion that the name in Greek means “wolf” (which it doesn’t); “Phaedrus” is associated not only with a timber wolf but with Goethe’s Erlkönig: he is evidently felt as a real menace. Yet while his breakdown in the course of a head-on encounter with the University of Chicago is melodramatized nearly to the point of comedy, it is a muted reaffirmation of his sanity that opens the way in the last pages of the novel to the father’s almost charmed reconciliation with his son. These oddities are not, perhaps, wholly Mr. Pirsig’s. Throughout the latter part of the book particularly, the lighting is fitful and the sequences of thought and action spasmodic, as if from heavy cutting of a longer manuscript.
The real test of a prickly, rankling book like ZAAMM lies in its enduring power to disquiet. One can guess that even if the intense and confused metaphysics should pall (based as they seem to be on feverish interpretations of hastily read books), the wonder and fear of the novel would remain. These are loose, impressionistic words for an effect that grows, not simply out of effect making, but from quiet and deft prose on seemingly impersonal topics. Looking back to one of Mr. Pirsig’s recent predecessors, one finds Jack Kerouac wielding a heavy prose hammer in a brief but typical scene from On the Road. Teresa, picked up on a bus to Los Angeles, has decided Sal Paradise is a pimp, and barricaded herself in the bathroom; he gets angry, throws her shoes against the door, and tells her to clear out:
Terry came out with tears of sorriness in her eyes. In her simple and funny little mind had been decided the fact that a pimp does not throw a woman’s shoes against the door and does not tell her to get out. In reverent and sweet little silence she took all her clothes off and slipped her tiny body into the sheets with me. It was brown as grapes. I saw her poor belly where there was a Caesarian scar; her hips were so narrow she couldn’t bear a child without getting gashed open. Her legs were like little sticks. She was only four foot ten. [Page 84]
By way of contrast, Mr. Pirsig:
A “mechanic’s feel” implies not only an understanding for the elasticity of metal but for its softness. The insides of a motorcycle contain surfaces that are precise in some cases to as little as one ten-thousandth of an inch. If you drop them or get dirt on them or scratch them or bang them with a hammer they’ll lose that precision. It’s important to understand that the metal behind the surfaces can normally take great shock and stress but that the surfaces themselves cannot. When handling precision parts that are stuck or difficult to manipulate, a person with mechanic’s feel will avoid damaging the surfaces and work with his tools on the nonprecision surfaces of the same part whenever possible. If he must work on the surfaces themselves, he’ll always use softer surfaces to work them with. Brass hammers, plastic hammers, wood hammers, rubber hammers and lead hammers are all available for this work. Use them. Vise jaws can be fitted with plastic and copper and lead faces. Use these too. Handle precision parts gently. You’ll never be sorry. If you have a tendency to bang things around, take more time and try to develop a little more respect for the accomplishment that a precision part represents. [Page 324]
The theme of both passages is reverence; both use the vocabulary of exact observation to suggest an undercurrent of feeling, amounting to anxiety. But Kerouac bangs the English language around in those first two sentences, and falls into bathos in the last. He is incapable of a pair of sentences like “Use them,” and “Use these too.” Pirsig, with his severe, schoolteacherish tone and his clean, clear style, convinces us that we may have a kind of love for tappets and wonder over camshafts; and this conviction may very well give long life to his fine and peculiar book.