Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
by Mark Richardson
Published by Knopf
288 pages, 2008
What is Remembered
Reviewed by Diane Leach
The best possible way to read Richardson’s book is to first re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. If you are between 40 and 60, chances are you still have a battered paperback copy around -- perhaps the edition with the blue cover (the one my parents had), the orange cover (mine), or Richardson’s pink one. If you are like many of us, you read the book well over 20 years ago, with intermittent comprehension. If at all possible, go back and reread. You will be amazed at how relevant Pirsig’s book remains. You may even be pleased at how much more you understand about his inquiry into Quality. Broken into layman’s terms, Pirsig felt anything worth doing merited one’s full attention; that even the dullest tasks, when carefully attended to, might well elicit better methods. In Pirsig’s pre-computer, pre-Internet, pre-mobile phone world, technology was already demonized. Pirsig argued that technology itself was not to blame for degraded values. Rather, our use of it -- rather, misuse -- lay at the root of societal disintegration.
In other words, hang up and drive.
Pirsig framed his inquiry around a motorcycle trip taken from Minnesota to California. Friends John and Sylvia Sutherland joined him for part of the ride. Son Chris rode behind Pirsig for the entire trip. Amid observations of the land and long philosophical passages, Pirsig writes about his bout of schizophrenia, which involved hospitalization and electroshock therapy, and the ways 11-year-old Chris is manifesting frightening signs of mental illness himself.
The book was a surprise bestseller, inspiring countless individuals -- dubbed Pirsig’s Pilgrims -- to regularly mount bikes and travel the author’s route, meticulously tracking each burg, campground and roadside diner where Pirsig pulled over. There are Zen studies and theses and Web sites. And now, there is Richardson’s book. He, too, is a Pirsig Pilgrim, trekking cross country on the eve of his 42nd birthday, writing about Pirsig’s life, the impact of Zen on his life, and the land both men travel.
Approaching middle age, feeling the strain of married life with two small children, Richardson is bluntly honest about his longing to take to the open road. With a GPS unit mapping out the coordinates of Pirsig’s trip, he gets on Jackie New, his dirt bike, and is off.
The GPS enables Richardson to find many of Pirsig’s stops, some changed 40 years after Pirsig took his trip in 1968, many surprisingly intact. Richardson tells his story deftly, interweaving the Pirsig family’s biography with close observation of the road, his own life and the people he encounters on his travels.
Unless you are a complete couch zombie, his descriptions of a largely pristine rural America will have you longing for a road trip of your own. The evocations of “flyover” towns and their inhabitants contrast starkly to the larger cities Richardson passes through: as expected, the people in smaller towns are friendlier, more inclined to conversation or offer a helping hand, while us city folk come across badly indeed -- rushed, harried, brusque. As Sylvia Sutherland observed all those years ago in Zen, we’re a miserable-looking bunch during the morning commute -- packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes, contestants in a suicidal race.
Richardson managed to correspond with or meet many of Zen’s characters: Gennie DeWeese, the Sutherlands, Robert Pirsig, his ex-wife, Nancy, and their son, Ted, filling in much of the biographical information left out of Zen. The result, though fascinating, is utterly dismaying. Pirsig is a brilliant but exceptionally difficult individual. After the aforementioned bout of schizophrenia, he left the hospital questioning his diagnosis, preferring to believe he had achieved enlightenment. From this unimpeachable vantage point, his wife’s opinions were without merit; he remained emotionally detached as his sons spun though rocky adolescences characterized by violence, drug abuse, mental illness, and repeated psychiatric hospitalizations.
After 23 years, Pirsig and Nancy amicably dissolved their common-law marriage. Ted remains estranged from his father.
Which brings me to Chris.
Chris was killed during a robbery outside the San Francisco Zen Center in 1979. He was about to turn 23. While Pirsig followers evidently knew this, I had no idea, and it was hell of a blow. I’d carried the kid on the back of the bike around for 25 years. I could relate to Chris, because I, too, was an emotionally unstable child who suffered from stomachaches, a child, who, like Chris, loved riding on the back of her dad’s motorcycle. Worse, Chris had finally pulled his life together, overcoming his demons while living at the Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm. Had he lived, Chris Pirsig would be 52 years old.
At times Richardson can sound a bit chauvinistic. Are men really still calling their motorcycles she, naming them after ex-girlfriends? And though Richardson divulges little, marital troubles are intimated. He freely expresses his frustration with his little boys, who mess up his bike repair, interfere with his marriage, and require constant ferrying to soccer practice. In South Dakota he comes perilously close to committing adultery, saved only by too much liquor -- his Juliet passes out. But to Richardson’s infinite credit, he’s scrupulously honest. As for the family that so annoys him, by the book’s conclusion he wants nothing but to see them again.
Even if you haven’t the time or inclination to tackle Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Zen and Now is still well worth you time -- for the road trip, the sad biography of a troubled genius, and the wisdom still readily available on the open road.