Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance recounts a road trip across the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, Oregon and California. It is a philosophical inquiry into the nature of Quality. It’s also the story of a man running from a ghost of his former self after a mental illness.
The book begins on the central plains of Minnesota. A road trip is in progress with four riders: the narrator and his eleven-year-old son Chris share a motorcycle; their companions are a married couple, John and Sylvia Sutherland. Philosophical musings arise early in the narrative, comparing the way John understands mechanical problems with the narrator’s approach. Philosophical questions routinely include a motorcycle analogy. The ruminations range from ghosts to technology, Eastern philosophy to empiricism, rationalism to rhetoric. Each of these discourses takes place on the back of a motorcycle, in the form of a lecture which Pirsig likens to the Chautauqua assemblies of the 19th and early 20th Centuries.
As the book proceeds, a different narrative emerges, that of Pirsig’s own life before the onset of mental illness. He uses the name Phaedrus when referring to his former self, a self he cannot remember except in fragments due to the effects of electric shock therapy. This line of the narrative becomes gradually more consuming as Phaedrus begins to reveal himself to Pirsig in dreams, and to the reader through Pirsig’s descriptions of Phaedrus’ own philosophical inquiries into the metaphysics of quality which usurp the Chautauqua lectures. By the final chapter, Phaedrus has taken over Pirsig’s stream of consciousness. But it is for his son Chris, rather than Pirsig himself, that Phaedrus has come.