Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance should not be a popular book. Long, meandering, and often perplexing, it is not surprising that it was reportedly rejected 121 times before finding a publisher. A burst of popularity upon publication in 1974 would have made sense, given the damaged post-Vietnam days when people were searching for new ways to find what they were searching for. But it didn’t end there: This book has been popular for more than 40 years. Why?
The plot doesn’t give easy answers. The main characters in this novel are a father and his son, Christopher. The father, though, is of two minds. He’s also “Phaedrus,” a novelized version of Pirsig and the third person past tense self of the narrator (got it?). Phaedrus is not only trying to come to terms with his “cured” mental illness but with the central question in the story: What is quality? What makes a thing or a person or an idea good? This question obsessed the author throughout his own mental breakdown, institutionalization, and electric shock therapy, the memory of which Pirsig only shows us through Phaedrus.
The story’s plot unfolds on a trip that the narrator and Christopher are taking cross-country, from the northern Midwest to the Pacific Ocean on a Honda 305 Superhawk motorcycle. Father and son wander west and go off the grid, following a paper map clutched in their hands. Meanwhile, Phaedrus’ thoughts tread through the past.
But the specific action is not where the rubber hits the road, so to speak, for this novel. Instead, the art is always found in the details along the road:
“We stem down into an enormous canyon with high white bluffs on either side,” writes Pirsig. “The wind freezes. The road comes into some sunlight which seems to warm me right through the jacket and sweater, but soon we ride into the shade of the canyon wall again where again the wind freezes. This dry desert air doesn’t hold heat. My lips, with the wind blowing into them, feel dry and cracked.” At any moment, any and all of it could easily and tragically fall apart. Faced with the totality of all that, how could any reader look away?
What motorcyclist doesn’t take this passage to heart? Matthew B. Crawford, the heir apparent of Pirsig who wrote 2009’s Shop Class as Soulcraft also touches on the philosophy bikers live by, and this book brings to bear: that the “truth does not reveal itself to idle spectators.” Hunter S. Thompson also hits on such on-the-go revelations in Hells Angels when he talks about “the edge… There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over,” writes Thompson.
In Motorcycle Maintenance, the lessons or revelations are wrapped up with the physical sensations found on the open road. “In a car you're always in a compartment,” Pirsig writes, “and because you're used to it you don't realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You're a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.
"On a cycle, the frame is gone. You're completely in contact with it all. You're in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.”
Much like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the pleasure of motorcycling is easy to describe but hard to explain. Pirsig’s book, while often rambling and dauntingly massive, comes closest.