Zen & Now

pirsigIn the late 1960s, a thoughtful, troubled man on a motorcycle rode from Minnesota to California, in the hope of reconnecting with his young son. On the way, he reflected on his life in and out of a mental institution, the ups and downs of his career in academia, and the nature of “Quality” – what is it, and where do we find it in the modern world? Robert Pirsig eventually wrote up his experiences into his first book, Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Published in 1974, it became an instant classic.

Thirty years later, Mark Richardson retraced Pirsig’s tracks, revisiting the places of his epic journey, tracking down the surviving characters mentioned in the book, and meditating further on Pirsig’s life and work. Zen & Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is his well-crafted pastiche of the original. Where Pirsig rode the road and thought of Phaedrus, his alter-ego, Richardson travels the same path, and thinks of Pirsig himself – the strange history of the certified genius who now lives as a recluse and refuses to engage with his fans.

Richardson travels on a temperamental Suzuki with a GPS strapped to the gas tank, carefully replicating Pirsig’s original journey, even down to the wrong turns. He buys cold drinks from machines, and observes that there is nobody to tell him a story. Richardson’s world, a generation removed from Pirsig’s book, is one of mobile phones and shoes without laces, lonely pink-haired moteliers and former bankers trying to shake off the shock of 9/11. He rereads Pirsig’s book in the context of the 21st century, noting such little details as the protagonist’s lack of concern for where he poured away his dirty oil – ecology being yet another discipline that had yet to trouble the original Zen riders. He takes hundreds of photographs, spoilt by the capacities of a digital camera, whereas only a paltry handful of analogue pictures survive of Pirsig’s famous ride.

ZEN_coverRichardson doggedly tracks down as many of the people he can who appear in the book, many of them now doddering and old, and usually quite touched to find themselves visited by a man who has read about them in a famous book. His inch-by-inch recreation of the route allows him to exercise a stern, robust form of literary criticism, noting those places where Pirsig gentle elided reality or rejigged a person’s character to suit his narrative. An amusing proportion of them have heard of Pirisg’s book, and even started reading it, but never made it to the end – that’s okay, it’s all about the journey, anyway.

Richardson also writes about the writing of the classic itself, charting its long road to manuscript form, and its sudden, meteoric success in the mid-1970s. There are details of Pirsig’s terrible enquiry letter, outlining his plans for his book and making it sound about as exciting as a Honda manual (no wonder 121 publishers weren’t interested), and the multiple draftings and redraftings, alongside wrangles at the publisher over the saleability of a 400-page “enquiry into values.” Mere months after its publication, Bantam are offering $370,000 for the paperback rights… and that was back when $370,000 was a lot of money. Pirsig probably never needed to work again, which makes his later fame only the more ironic, as his attempts to write a follow-up are plagued by hippies and hipsters, bikers and fakirs, all trying to get his opinion on matters of philosophy and, or course, engineering.

I’ve known for many years about the original book’s tragic coda – that Chris, the inquisitive young boy who accompanies his father on the famous motorcycle trip, would barely make it into his twenties before his untimely death in a San Francisco stabbing. But I hadn’t quite registered the other sad stories that a smarter reader might have picked out from the original manuscript, such as the fact that Chris had a younger brother, Ted, who has since disowned their father. Moreover, although there are ample clues in the original book, neither its author nor my younger reader-self made what now seems to be an obvious connection between the occasionally odd behaviour of the teenage Chris and the mental illness that hounded his father. Richardson’s biographical sections on the Pirsig family offer grim glimpses of troubled minds and tearaway teenagers, with Pirsig as a driven, silent man, eternally wrestling with philosophical abstractions, oblivious to the problems elsewhere in his family.

Just as Pirsig pastiched the 1948 classic Zen in the Art of Archery, Richardson pastiches Pirsig, finding moments of enlightenment and peace in the time it takes his hard-drive to defragment and his clothes to dry. There is Buddha-nature even in the technological present, but only insofar as Quality shines through. For the Zen thinker, hell dwells in the built-in redundancies and airy obsolescence of the instructions for an Ikea flat-pack.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Zen Haiku (US/UK), re-released this month by Frances Lincoln.

Big Game

“Samuel L. Jackson flies through a Lapland forest, in a fridge, while Titus Pullo dangles from a helicopter shooting at him with a sub-machine gun…” (trailer)


Lame-duck American president Samuel L. Mummofaffing Jackson (“Call me Bill”) is travelling to a conference in Helsinki when Air Force One is shot down over Lapland by jodhpur-wearing Arab Bastard (he is Arabic, and a Bastard) Mehmet Kurtulus, a “grade-A psychopath” who plans to mount and stuff him. Back at the Pentagon, a bunch of aides wring their hands and send the SEALs all over the place, while the President goes on the run with a 13-year-old Finnish boy Oskari (Onni Tommila), interrupted partway through his traditional manhood ritual, which involves running into the forest with a bow and arrow and bagging the biggest possible game. He was hoping for a bear or a reindeer, but instead finds himself playing impromptu bodyguard to POTUS.

Meanwhile, the President’s real bodyguard, Ray Stevenson, is secretly working with the Arab Bastard, in a troubled and contentious partnership that usually involves shooting a henchman every time they disagree. Tracking the fleeing President and his teenage guardian, they briefly apprehend them, leading to a bonkers escape sequence in which Samuel L. Jackson flies through a Lapland forest, in a fridge, while Titus Pullo dangles from a helicopter shooting at him with a sub-machine gun. They go to ground in an explosive shoot-out in and around the wreckage of Air Force One, which eventually seems to result in the blowing up of half of the Finnish countryside.

arab bastard no really its in the plot

As with writer/director Jalmari Helander’s previous film, Rare Exports, Finland itself is playfully stereotyped and archetyped to a wilfully silly degree. If the Americans are shouty morons with lots of guns and expensive tech that proves to be useless, the Finns are a bunch of earnest, grubby hunters with Bowie knives and trousers held up with string. They are enacting a portentous coming-of-age ceremony that involves running out into the woods and killing something. If Helander were not actually a Finn himself, we’d think he was a clueless hack, but since he plainly knows that Lapland isn’t actually a mere 45 minutes north of Helsinki, we can file his more absurd action-movie fudges as a deliberate invocation of a Finland of the mind – a sweetly childish playground of forest adventures and easily-outwitted bad guys, with time out to grill a sausage over a fire. He takes this to extremes with his landscapes, which replace the drab fells of the real Lapland with the breath-taking peaks of the Bavarian Alps, thereby hoovering up German film-fund money for a movie whose Hollywood action style is really a thin veneer over a multi-national Europudding.

With its 13-year-old protagonist and an 80-minute running time, Big Game is carefully targeted at the juvenile audience, despite its Die Hard trappings and the inevitable appearance of Samuel L. Mummofaffing Jackson’s favourite word, in a Yippie-kay-aye Moviegoer quotable that is long in coming but worth the wait. Helander’s script ultimately paints America as both an aspirational paradise and a corrupt rogue state, while its president is by turns baffled and charmed by Finland’s grim sisu resolve, and ultimately regains his self-confidence and poll rating through the acquisition of firearms and snark.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.   Big Game is released in UK cinemas on 8th May.

Ask Us Anything

10612807_10152983401630600_2142389238260967136_nHelen McCarthy and I did a Reddit AMA on Saturday 21st March 2015.

You can read the results here.

**Title of AMA**: We are Jonathan Clements and Helen McCarthy, the authors of The Anime Encyclopedia: A Century of Japanese Animation, out now from Stone Bridge Press.

**Background/description of AMA subject**: Anime super-fans Jonathan Clements and Helen McCarthy, authors of the 1200-page, 1.1 million words of The Anime Encyclopedia: Revised 3rd Edition: A Century of Japanese Animation, will be answering questions about Japanese animation, comics, and fandom. Why does the world need an encyclopedia of anime? Is print dead? Why have they got such big eyes? What’s so wrong about Tenchi Muyo? What’s the worst anime ever? The best? the craziest? How much is too much? Is there a tentacle limit? Is there hope for the future? What is the flight velocity of an unladen swallow? All these questions, and more, can be answered or at least sarcastically dodged by the authors of the biggest book on anime to be found in any language, including Japanese.

“a conspiratorial journey to mock Finland”

41CH3PO2YYL._SY445_Edward Dutton’s much-appreciated review of my Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland appears in the Scandinavian Journal of History 40:1, and decrees it to be “lively and humorous… a good introduction to Finland…[that] successfully negotiates the various problems that bedevil producing a history book aimed at undergraduates.” He pays it an immense compliment by assuming it should be let anywhere near an academic syllabus in the first place, but perhaps is already looking forward to arguing with his students about the terrible things I say about Russian tourists and fundamentalist Lutherans.

Kaoru Kurimoto

guin sagaOver at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I finally get around to writing the necessarily massive entry required on Kaoru Kurimoto, possibly the most influential female author in Japanese science fiction for much of the 1980s and 1990s. I’m pretty proud that it takes five paragraphs to get to Guin Saga, which is liable to be the only thing of hers that most non-Japanese people have heard of, if at all.