Author of 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' cranks up, ruminates again

October 20, 1991|By Elizabeth Mehren | Elizabeth Mehren,Los Angeles Times

Cambridge, Mass. -- Seventeen years ago, an unknown writer named Robert M. Pirsig amazed the literary world -- not to mention the 120 publishers who had rejected his manuscript -- with a philosophical odyssey called "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance."

His book was received as a kind of bolt out of the ontological blue. It surprised people with its insights and intellectual meanderings. It became a multimillion-copy best seller and even spawned a companion guidebook, written by two Ph.D.'s.

In what is considered a remarkable achievement for a book that is nearly 20 years old, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" sells about 100,000 copies annually. It has achieved such cult status that often it is referred to only by the initials ZMM.

But, it has been noted, that was Zen. This is now.

People who once had time to dwell upon enlightenment and universal truth are worried about jobs, mortgages, the soaring cost of health care and growing threats to the environment. Will they embrace Mr. Pirsig's long-awaited second book, "Lila," a bleak novel in which the philosopher-author sets forth on a journey by 32-foot sailboat and questions the dismal state of Western society?

Mr. Pirsig shrugs off questions about possible conflicts between metaphysics and mortgages.

"The same question was raised when 'ZMM' came out," Mr. Pirsig says. "One of the reasons the [publishers] rejected it is that they said it had nothing to do with our time and our culture. Remember, this was 1974, and the hippies were just kind of wrapping things up. If you look at the contemporary books of 1974, you'll find that 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' was as unusual then as 'Lila' is unusual now."

The first book was based on a trip Mr. Pirsig and his son Chris made in the summer of 1968. Mr. Pirsig was 39; Chris was 11. On the two-month round-trip between their home in St. Paul, Minn., and Petaluma, Calif., they discussed the workings of the motorcycle -- "a miniature study of the art of rationality itself," Mr. Pirsig called it -- and the mysteries of the universe. Mr. Pirsig also confided to his son his struggles with mental illness and his treatment with shock therapy. The Pirsigs' adventures in mind and spirit, and on the road itself, prompted the New Yorker to compare "ZMM" to "Moby Dick," and led the New York Review of Books to praise Mr. Pirsig as "a stunning writer."

"Lila," says Mr. Pirsig, is a far grimmer book. Its title character, named for a childhood playmate of his, often confounded the author. Along with pages and pages of philosophical digression, "Lila" is filled with friction. Whether floating on the Hudson River or quarreling in cheap port-town saloons, its characters drink a lot and ponder what Mr. Pirsig described as "the moral erosion that is distressing people everywhere these days."

That he is even willing to discuss such matters reflects both the high hopes he and his publisher have for "Lila" and the fact that times have changed a great deal since Americans sought enlightenment on the back of Mr. Pirsig's red Honda Superhawk.

Mr. Pirsig normally shuns interviews and is pantherlike in protecting his privacy. He admits only to living in a state "somewhere north of New York." He refuses to talk on the telephone.

Bantam paid Mr. Pirsig a seven-figure advance for "Lila." In return, Mr. Pirsig was himself persuaded to do a limited number of interviews to promote the book.

Mr. Pirsig admits to the concern that readers may be drawn to "Lila" on the strength of their fealty to "ZMM." "It worries me tremendously, because they'll be disappointed," he says.

"Lila," like "ZMM," is episodic in structure. The books share a protagonist, Phaedrus, a sometimes cranky writer-anthropologist whom Mr. Pirsig describes as his own alter ego, "as everybody will notice." "ZMM" traveled highways and dirt roads; "Lila" sails down the Hudson. Both trips afford ample opportunity for philosophical rumination. Both books delve into the nature of quality, or Quality, as Mr. Pirsig prefers to spell it. Both volumes roam with conviction in the fields of American Indian history, anthropology and modern physics. Both offer extensive quotations from or references to thinkers ranging from Aristotle to Swedenborg to Descartes to Elvis.

But such similarities are incidental, the author insists. While "ZMM" was an epistemological travelogue, "Lila" is a novel; it even takes its name from a woman, the traveling companion Phaedrus picks up in a bar.

One reason it took so long to write "Lila" is that "I did not want to write one of those sequels that famous first-book authors get into where everybody says, 'Oh yeah,' " Mr. Pirsig says. "This is not an 'Oh yeah' book."

For Mr. Pirsig, writing is a laborious process even under the most inspired of circumstances. Often, he said, he sits for days or weeks with a pen in his hand and a clipboard on his knee. He stares and he thinks and he waits, and when the words appear, he records them.

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