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 …