Part road novel, part philosophy, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance ("ZMM") met with huge critical and commercial success when first published in 1974. Narrator and son ride from Minneapolis to San Francisco; meanwhile, both are haunted by the narrator's past insanity, brought about by his "chasing the ghost of rationality". A series of philosophical monologues addresses questions both mundane - how to fix a motorcycle - and metaphysical.
Today ZMM retains a sizeable following, although criticism of it is very polarised: Pirsig's fervent self-assurance when dealing with philosophical questions converts some readers into "followers" and tends to exasperate everyone else. Mostly structured as a "solution" rather than an "inquiry", as the title claims, ZMM's philosophy is too often accepted without question, and it is frequently and regrettably true that the more positive the review, the more philosophically naïve the reviewer. Nonetheless, this should not disallow ZMM from being considered on its own merits.
ZMM is not an introductory philosophy text, more a "once-in-a-lifetime" philosophical statement; the comparison has already been made with Hofstadter's "Gödel, Escher, Bach", and Hofstadter's description - "a statement of my religion" - could well describe ZMM, too. When one considers the motivation required to sustain Pirsig's long and solitary struggle in writing and publishing ZMM, the rhetorical fervour of his arguments becomes more understandable. Those who attack Pirsig as pompous or narcissistic fail to appreciate the degree of self-belief needed to complete such a highly individualistic work. So, we can certainly admire him for trying - but is ZMM any good?
Some of Pirsig's arguments rest uneasily, such as his blithe acceptance of scientific relativism; and in rejecting subject-object dualism, he paints himself into some peculiar corners, such as his disquiet at the lack of beer cans littering Crater Lake National Park. But there is much in ZMM that is good and thought-provoking, too, especially where education is concerned: all teachers should read this book. And even during his tougher metaphysical monologues, only the driest, most rigid mindset could fail to find Pirsig's rhetoric engaging. Here, his wild claims about the importance of his philosophical arguments are gently counterbalanced by his acknowledged previous insanity: Pirsig takes care to label them the "ramblings of a madman", though not without a certain knowing irony.
ZMM is not just philosophy: it is also a fine piece of travel writing, and a history of Pirsig's teaching career. It remains a novel, however, and not an autobiography: whilst the events described did occur, subtle details have been changed. Most importantly, Robert Pirsig "the author" differs from the narrator, who in turn differs from his former personality ("Phaedrus"). The subtle conflict between the narrator's unifying philosophy, and the barely resolved tensions between narrator/Phaedrus and narrator/son, produces a fully intended irony. Criticism of the narrator is unfair and misguided when it is directed at the author.
Pirsig writes with great clarity. Well-structured sentences and careful use of italics give his writing great explanatory power, reminiscent, for this reviewer, of the biologist Richard Dawkins. We may not agree with Pirsig, but we are rarely in any doubt about what he means to say. Nonetheless, there are inevitable uncertainties at the core of ZMM, concerning reason and its limits. The antipsychiatric "insanity as enlightenment" nettle is never fully grasped, though one senses that this is Pirsig's belief; moreover, the analytic intractability of the Eastern philosophy that he embraces means that ultimately, the "inquiry" never reasons its way to an answer. Those seeking an absolutist metaphysical system will not find it here, and one can imagine Pirsig's sense of unease at becoming a latter-day religious guru.
ZMM is very much unique: four and a half years in the writing, but decades, one senses, in the germination. Fans will enjoy the 25 or so extra pages, cut from the original manuscript, available in DiSanto's "Guidebook to ZMM" - but skip the dreadful philosophy chapters. Pirsig wrote a sequel of sorts, "Lila", in 1991, but its sour atmosphere and slack reasoning make it strictly for the converted. Evidently Pirsig coped badly with his post-ZMM fame: one can imagine the sackloads of witless fan-mail. Unquestionably, for this reviewer, ZMM can stand alone: a model of clarity in written argument, a fine American road novel, and an inspiring demonstration of one man's ability to think for himself.