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Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance

1759 words - 7 pages

Told by the blurb that we have here "one of the most unique and exciting books in the history of American letters," one bridles both at the grammar of the claim and at its routine excess. The grammar stays irreparable. But I have a hunch that the assertion itself is valid. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values, by Robert M. Pirsig (Morrow), is as willfully awkward as its title. It is densely put together. It lurches, with a deliberate shift of its grave ballast, between fiction and philosophic discourse, between a private memoir and the formulaic impersonality of an engineering or trade journal. As it stands, it is a very long book, but report has it, and fault lines indicate, that a much longer text lies behind it. One hears of an eight- hundred-thousand-word draft and feels perversely deprived of it by the mere sanity and worldliness of the publisher. Zen and the Art is awkward both to live with and to write about. It lodges in the mind as few recent novels have, deepening its grip, compelling the landscape into unexpected planes of order and menace.

 

The narrative thread is deceptively trite. Father and son are on a motorcycle holiday, traveling from Minneapolis toward the Dakotas, then across the mountains, turning south to Santa Rosa and the Bay. Asphalt, motels, hairpins in the knife-cold of the Rockies, fog and desert, the waters dividing, then the vineyards and the tawny flanks of the sea. Mr. Pirsig is not the first ever to burst: Kerouac has been here before him, and Humbert Humbert, a clutch of novels, films, stories, television serials of loners on the move, lapping the silent miles, toasted or drenched under the big skies, motelling from one neon oasis to the next, and gliding at sundown through the nerve- wrenching sadness of the American suburb, honky-tonk town, and used-car crater. Pirsig is good on distance, windburn, and the uncomely occurrences in one's innards after too many hours on a cycle, after too many dusty snacks. But this would not make for the force of his book.

 

There are other pressures. The eleven-year-old passenger is called Chris. The weight of his nascent perceptions, of his endangered identity, grows fierce. There is a level at which this is the story of the great-shouldered ferryman of the Lord, of St. Christopher, guardian, talisman of travelers, his ribs bursting, his thighs shivering as the Child's weight almost overwhelms him in midstream. And Pirsig knows, perhaps senses with the somnambular erudition of a major artist, that the Christian image is itself a reflection of something much older-the centaur, a creature "motorcyclic" if ever there was, bearing the infant Hercules. A father and his child are riding through night and wind, enigmatically pursued, in receipt of eerie solicitations that seem to tear at the boy's soul. Yes, of course: the most famous of ballads, Goethe's "Erlkonig," some of whose multitudinous musical settings seem to resound...

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