Sunday, December 12, 2010

Cult Fiction: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

One of the clearest examples of cult fiction in the twentieth century is Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Published in 1974, the novel was rejected by 121 publishers, although it went on to sell over four million copies (typical of a cult fiction title). The book chronicles a father and son's seventeen-day motorcycle journey from Minnesota to California.

Like so many cult fiction titles, the narrative deals with metaphysics, philosophy, and the nature of reality. Specifically, the book expounds Pirsig's personal philosophy called the Metaphysics of Quality, or MOQ. While this belief system is not Zen (the novel's title is a variation on another book title, Zen in the Art of Archery), it does reveal Pirsig's exposure to eastern philosophy while a soldier in Korea. Weighty at times, the book is populated by many father-son discussions, labeled Chautauquas. While the philosophy is too intricate to describe in depth for the purposes of this discussion, Pirsig is, in the final analysis, arguing for a balance between pragmatism and romanticism--a way to embrace living in the mysticism of the moment while also tending to the the rational demands of the physical world (such as motorcycle maintenance).

The book has a history of appealing to a younger audience, one that is seeking answers to the quest looming large as one leaves adolescence. It also has the lure of describing a road trip (so many cult classics do the same) on a motorcycle. Older audiences, even those once enamored by the book, often find the long, philosophical diatribes to be a bit much, perhaps because their own life experiences have ultimately settled the issues Pirsig raises.

But the novel has had staying power and continues to sell. Its publishing history, themes, and narrative structure make Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as good an example of cult fiction as one can find in American literature. While John Lennon and the Mercy Street Cafe explores metaphysics and a different spiritual approach to life as the main characters take a road trip, it is far less didactic than Pirsig's work.

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