Tag Archives: Julian Barnes

Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Capturing Castles

Lots of Robert Pirsig obituaries this week. A greater number, across a more diverse range of outlets, than you’d expect for the death of a mere writer.

The publication in 1974 of his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in some respects marked the point at which (to borrow a Dodie Smith notion) the so-called counterculture captured the castle.

It turned out to be a short lived stay. Shorter than most people remember. Or would like to believe.

But still. The book straddled audiences as deftly as it straddled genres. It was a big seller in the sorts of alternative bookshops that offered a heady mix of pornography, Marxism, vegan cook books and psychobabble self-help manuals alongside its Picador display stands; yet by the end of the decade it had made its way onto the reading lists of Eng Lit modules exploring the 20th Century after-currents of Romanticism.

Forget much of the zeitgeist stuff in the obits. Yes, the book was a success because Zen Buddhism was modish and motorcycles were still cool. But of equal importance was its compelling structural elegance.

Indeed, there were those on the intellectual wing of the book publishing business (mainly in the US but also, somewhat insipidly, on this side of the Atlantic too) who also believed that Pirsig had stumbled onto a magical recipe.

Take a first person narrative, a testament of sorts, ideally a quest – but disguise its true nature by clothing it in more abstract intellectual pursuits and the riding of choice hobby horses. It’s a form of misdirection, but a remarkably potent one.

Some of our more precious novelists attempted to absorb its lessons – Flaubert’s Parrot springs to mind – but never quite made it up to the mark. Sincerity, as they say, is incredibly hard to fake.

And in fact it turned out that Pirsig couldn’t repeat the trick himself. I’m almost certain I read, or tried to read, Lila… but I can remember not a single word of it.

The lessons, though, are still there to be learned. And well-written high-concept books will surely return. At their best they can be hugely rewarding for the reader. The sort of reader who likes his or her art multi-layered in ways that current templates (as policed by a dreary UEA diaspora) just can’t accommodate.

These days, if you pitched a point-counterpoint narrative even remotely resembling Zen, you’d get one of those witheringly-ghastly wall-eyed agent’s notes.

A day will eventually dawn, though.

As, indeed, it must.