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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.

October 11, 1991|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — 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.

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."

"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.

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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