In 1968 Robert Pirsig set out on a motorcycle trip with his son and writes a book about it.
In 2004 Mark Richardson set out on a motorcycle trip retracing Pirsig’s journey and writes a book about it.
The first book is the classic bestseller Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a tale that has achieved cult status with its ideological impact and lasting effect on the majority of its readers. Pirsig brings us a journey where he and his young son Chris embark on a lengthy motorcycle trip. Part of this story is Pirsig trying to reconnect with his son, another part is Pirsig attempting to rebuild his past memories partially obliterated by electro-shock, and another part is Pirsig expounding on his philosophical musings on Quality. All this in a book that openly admits it may not be entirely factual on the events, the zen, or the maintenance.
But even with these caveats, Pirsig still created an instant cultural touchstone when it was published in 1974. Very swiftly after premiering, Pirsig became an instant celebrity in bookish and intellectual circles, with the added byproduct of groupies stopping by his house before embarking on their own version of following his trail.
Flashforward to 2004 and Pirsig is divorced from his first wife and now remarried and the father of a twenty-something. A boat trip led to an extended stay in Europe and along the way the sequel book Lila came out. That volume filled with even more philosophy did not fare as well with the critics.
Into all this history and drama and travelogue and thinking comes Toronto Star journalist Mark Richardson. Being a huge fan of the book and all things Pirsig, and knowing a metric ton about motorcycles and their maintenance, and also facing several philosophical conundrums as well, Richardson sets out on multiple missions, just like Pirsig.
Richardson, with the help of a trusty GPS, follows the route of Pirsig and immediately notices the uncanny accuracy of the man. Trees, motels, auto shops, and a million other details big and small that still exist all these decades later are revisited by Richardson. And along the way, people who Pirsig had talked/dealt with/is friends with became interview subjects for Richardson, who uses these opportunities to bring a fuller picture of Pirsig and the Zen book into focus.
His other mission, interspersed throughout the narrative, is Richardson sharing biographical details about Pirsig, his family, and the eventually fall out from the original book. The author has had lengthy correspondences with many of the principal players from back then, and shows how the alleged enlightened life of Pirsig was far from perfect, before and after the Zen book. Quite often, my great fannish love of Zen and the Art is tested by the horrible behaviour Pirsig subjected his family to.
The third mission of Richardson is the true journey of working on himself. He is on this trip, with his wife and children away elsewhere, and counting down to his forty second birthday, all while trying to evaluate his life. Richardson very much gives off the impression that is not a happy man with many parts of his life, including his impatience with his young children. The evolution of this part of his quest, refinding love of family, is at times heartbreaking and often frustrating, but being the hopeless romantic that I am, my hope lives on for them all.
With these three strands being juggled by Richardson, I get the definite sense he is striving to emulate the book he is following. Partly literary device, partly tribute to Pirsig, Richardson does an admirable job with this aspect. Not all the time, but his occasional dip into the Pirsig pool is alright, even comforting.
At the end of Zen and Now, Richardson provides an update on the people, Zen related or not, who he brushed against in his motorcycle trip. This coda provides an interesting continuation of this new unique Richardson/Pirsig journey.
All fans of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig should read and experience Zen and Now by Mark Richardson. It would be the Zen thing to do.
…is currently reading Schultz and Peanuts by David Michaelis