In 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.
Richardson 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 gently 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.