In the late 1960s, a narrator who very closely resembles author Robert M. Pirsig embarks on a summer motorcycle trip with his adolescent son and some friends, traveling from their home in Minneapolis to San Francisco. Twinned with descriptions of their physical journey across the great plains is Pirsig’s descriptions of his philosophical journey, his theory of life as analogized through his relationship with his motorcycle. For the narrator/author, the physical act of motorcycle maintenance, the attention to detail, the willingness to devote time and attention and patience to keeping it in repair, allows him to achieve a better understanding of the universe.
I started reading this on a road trip through Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota back in pre-pandemic times, but it was more demanding than my attention span at the time allowed. Picking it up again this year I remembered why- in addition to mixing Greek philosophy into his theory of life, the narrator/author adopts an alter-ego, Phadrus, when telling his own life story. Phadrus, who had been a philosophy professor at a Montana college, became obsessed with the idea of ‘Quality’- what it meant, how to measure it.
… Spoilers below…
To be honest, I couldn’t quite follow the philosophy/logic, but it is possible that was on purpose- Phadrus’ obsession with Quality coincides with his spiral into an acute mental health episode, so its possible his logic as he got closer to circling this conclusion wasn’t as logical as he thought. The narrator/author’s trip with his son comes some time after the breakdown, hospital stay and eventual reconciliation with his family, with the motorcycle trip an effort to rebuild a bridge between the narrator/author and his adolescent son. As the trip wears on that relationship grows more strained- the closer the pair get to Montana, the location of the original breakdown, the more the fault lines show.
The parts of the motorcycle maintenance zen that I understood Pirsig trying to get across were some of the better parts of the book for me- the idea that technology can be understood and the slowing down to understand and maintain it is an exercise in self-reflection (and arguably self-improvement). The other parts I loved were the descriptions of the physical trip across the great plains in the pre-cell phone era- the winding back roads and small towns real almost mythic. The Smithsonian has a thoughtful article about the context the novel emerged out of- the 60s counterculture- and why the novel continues to resonate (a quick google will find it). That article showed me just how much I missed in Pirsig’s book as I was struggling to keep up with the philosophy and alter egos. I’m going to spend some time reading the commentary as I feel like the thinkpieces and articles about Zen may be as interesting as the novel itself.
Counting this one towards the CBR13 Machinery bingo square