Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: Chapter 1: of red-winged blackbirds and leaky faucets

Nothing highfalutin or pretty, just the facts. The flowery stuff later.

So yeah, you got this guy who goes unnamed, Robert Pirsig uses the nameless and sorta faceless narrator 1st person approach. He’s driving a motorcycle through the Dakotas or Minnesota, somewhere in the Great Plains, and it’s hot as shit, so it must be summer.

The narrator has a fondness for birds and ZWD (zoning while driving) but unfortunately, his 11-year-old son and motorcycle companion, Chris, doesn’t seem to share the same aviary enthusiasm. So he continues to zone and describes at length his proclivity for winding roads and rural highways that time (and the State Transportation Department) has forgotten. He observes that the immediacy of driving a bike is freeing and quite unlike observing the passing scenery from the compartment of a car and from behind glass. Alarmingly, he mentions how on a motorcycle it would be possible to reach down and touch the road with his foot as he flies along at 70 mph. Yeah, you do that Mr. Narrator and I don’t think this book will extend much beyond chapter 1.

Turns out they are following a couple of other riders, old friends of the narrator, John and Sylvia Sutherland, who despite sharing the narrator’s interesting in cross country motorbiking, absolutely do not see eye to eye in the field of motorcycle maintenance, hence the title, or a portion of it. Chapter 1 does not really reveal much about the Zen but I think I can see where it’s going.

The narrator alludes to the fact they are all headed to Montana, but maybe he and Chris even “further.”

His relationship with the Sutherland’s is nuanced and filled with thinly veiled antagonism and sadistic curiosity, it seems. The narrator seems to delight in deconstructing the Sutherlands if for no other reason than to elicit apoplectic reactions from John when the subject of maintaining a motorcycle comes up. You see, John, and his wife, refuse to learn the art of motorcycle maintenance. The narrator is perplexed until a revelation dawns…the Sutherlands are anti-technologists!

They have truly made a break from society, the married two of them, and the narrator, while intrigued, continues to insist on tooling around his motorcycle.

My favorite scene from the chapter happens when they pull over to rest at a park. They dismount from the bikes leisurely, kinda chill, take in the hot humid air and Sylvia stretches her legs and begins to drive the point home to the narrator that all the motorists going the opposite direction that morning (ie, they were all going to work, it’s obviously a weekday, a Monday morning, no less) looked so sad. Face after face in the long “funeral procession” looked sad. And she fixates on that. Trying to understand something that is supremely simple, really. But which she won’t allow herself to understand. Seriously man, it’s as if she revels in the fact that these weekday commuters were miserable and she was (symbolically) headed in the opposite direction. And she won’t let the thought go and the narrator shrugs it off nonchalantly and murmurs something about people “working to live” and then he changes the tune, the thought, and it’s obvious he doesn’t give a flying fuck what Sylvia is yapping about.

The dichotomy of self-reliance as a tool of technology surfaces here.

It’s only chapter 1 but I sorta started to think maybe it’s not technology that is at issue in this book.

John Sutherland and his refusal to fix faucets or tune his bike is portrayed as the helpless, bumbling character while the narrator is fucking Bob The Builder on steroids, tuning everything under the sun with his bottomless kit of tools sitting in his bike.

The narrator; John Sutherland. A contrast. More later? I’m sure.