I recently re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values which, if you aren’t aware, is a sort of autobiographical travelogue/philosophical essay. While the content of the essay varies between brilliant and bizarre and can be discussed at great length, Pirsig employs some powerful techniques which I would like to discuss here.
The first technique that caught my interest was the way that the physical journey paralleled the mental journey of his essay. This works as a sort of geographic pathetic fallacy; Pirsig has found portions of the journey which provoke a mood or sensation which is appropriate to the various ideas he wishes to discuss and aligned them appropriately. Early on in the book, a discussion about the frustrations of modern life is interwoven with a hot drive through the flats of America and further broken up with several asides about engine trouble and heavy traffic. As Pirsig and his travelling companions ascend into the mountains, new ideas emerge in his essay and possible solutions to our current ennui appear upon the horizon. The expanding vista increases our sensation that this ascension into more rarefied ideas is an eye-opening and exciting experience. While a landscape which reflects the themes of a novel is certainly not uncommon in fiction, it is particularly effective here because the gradual progress the characters make through different environments on their way to the West Coast carries on in tandem with the argument which Pirsig is building up throughout the novel. When the characters pull into a motel for a rest after putting many miles behind them, we as readers feel rewarded for the effort we have made working through the denser sections of Pirsig’s essay. Quiet moments in which to gather our strength are built right into the book itself. And the correlation which Pirsig has established between road trip and essay allows him to carry energy from one into the other; the invigoration we feel as we read brief snippets about dappled shadows whipping beneath the motorcycle or the piercing blue sky appearing between treetops carries over to sections of the essay which might otherwise have felt dry and difficult.
The second technique I would like to point out also adds urgency to the philosophical elements of the book. Pirsig gradually makes it known that the ideas he is discussing are ideas which he arrived at himself earlier in his life, but he does not remember them clearly because they were the cause of a mental breakdown from which it took him years to recover. He is working his way through these ideas, for our benefit, because he believes that they are valuable, but he makes it clear that he is risking his own hard-earned sanity in the process. As the novel progresses, we see signs that Pirsig’s mania is returning and we look on helplessly as Icarus ascends further and further on his rickety wings. Pirsig’s illness has been stalking him for many years and now he has foolishly ventured into its territory. This is excitement! We want to know what he discovered, but we are afraid of what is coming as well. Pirsig has found a way to make each new abstract notion hit with the impact of a door bursting open in a horror film.