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Zen and Now : Robert M. Pirsig rode a ‘Motorcycle’ to fame. He’s back with a bleaker tale of troubled times.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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 bestseller 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 its initials, “ZMM.”

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

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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 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?

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

“The same question was raised when ‘ZMM’ came out,” 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 Pirsig and his son Chris made in the summer of 1968. 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,” Pirsig called it--and the mysteries of the universe. Pirsig pere 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 Pirsig as “a stunning writer.”

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“Lila,” says 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 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 Pirsig’s red Honda Superhawk.

Pirsig normally shuns interviews and is panther-like in protecting his privacy. He admits only to living in a state “somewhere north of New York.” He refuses to talk on the telephone. He guards the name of his 32-foot sailboat like a state secret. “ZMM” fans, he says, would besiege him on the high seas if they knew the vessel’s identity.

He is 63, with white hair and an even whiter beard. His skin is crinkled from age, and from so much time on the road and at sea. His first marriage ended in divorce. He and his second wife, Wendy, have a 10-year-old daughter, Nell. Chris, the son who accompanied him on his motorcycle pilgrimage, was killed in 1979, murdered on a street outside the Zen Center in San Francisco.

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If Pirsig likens himself to a fielder catching the perfect fly ball, with his timing and the content of “Lila,” his publisher may have hesitated just for a moment before joining him in the ballpark. “Bantam sent me a whole long list of questions before they bought the book,” Pirsig says. “One of them was, ‘Aren’t we getting a little too heavy on this metaphysics and a little light on the narrative?’ ”

Pirsig says he was firm in his response. “I said no. The purpose of the narrative is to serve the metaphysics, not the other way around.”

The author’s argument proved persuasive. Confident that there is still room for Zen, Bantam paid Pirsig a seven-figure advance for “Lila.” In return, Pirsig was himself persuaded to do a limited number of interviews to promote the book.

Pirsig admits to 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.

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“Lila,” like “ZMM,” is episodic in structure. The books share a protagonist, Phaedrus, a sometimes cranky writer/anthropologist whom 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 Pirsig prefers to punctuate 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,’ ” Pirsig says. “This is not an ‘Oh yeah’ book.”

For 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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Pirsig describes this process as “a Zen thing” known as “effortless effort.” Effortless effort means “that if you go too fast, you feel guilty. It feels slipshod, slapdash. If you go too slow, you feel guilty because you feel like you’re goofing off.”

Using this approach, “you’d think I would just write it right the first time and be done,” Pirsig says. “But no, there’s Zen editing, and there’s Zen crying because it’s so bad.”

Like his writing, Pirsig’s speech fluctuates between the colloquial and the didactic. He sounds informal, more like he is talking about a term paper than a novel when he says, “Yeah, I just wanted to get it all together. I wanted to cover the waterfront, get it all into one picture.” The result is that “Lila” is “very dense reading and very frustrating because it moves on too fast in some places.”

He would like to have spent more time expounding on “the morality themes,” for example. As it is, says Pirsig, one of the book’s primary messages is that “the present time is in a state of moral confusion” because “there’s no such thing as morality.”

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The ephemeral nature of fame, of being a celebrity, also figures in “Lila.” This was a topic Pirsig didn’t know much about when he wrote “ZMM.” But in thinking about his next book, “it’s something I was living with all the time as I was writing.”

Rather than surrounding himself with literary luminaries, Pirsig holes up on his boat or in the log cabin in Sweden he and his family moved to after Nell was born. Now his home, “somewhere north of New York,” is modest. “We paid $80,000 for our house. Put that in your article,” he challenges.

Separating from the rest of the world is critical, Pirsig says. “For me, a writer should be more like a lighthouse keeper, just out there by himself. He shouldn’t get his ideas from other people all around him. He should get his ideas by just being quiet and thinking about what he knows and what he doesn’t know.”

What he does know is that readers who expect the kind of upbeat ending they encountered in “ZMM” “will be disappointed” by “Lila.” The new book is more contentious than its predecessor, he says. The title character is “a miserable person” on the verge of madness, and as Pirsig says so politely of Phaedrus, “he’s not very well integrated at a social level.”

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In “Lila,” the result is that “people are all at sixes and sevens with each other. They’re always quarreling. They never somehow resolve anything.”

But that is where Pirsig finds life in the United States in the 1990s--morally bereft and intellectually adrift. “It’s absolutely right,” he says of the book’sconclusion.

“This may not be the best answer,” Pirsig says. “It may not be the final answer. But it is an answer. And it’s more than anybody else is giving right now.”


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