Lila Essay - Critical Essays

Robert M. Pirsig


Titles are important. They aren’t merely labels; they’re advertisements, intended to seduce potential readers. ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE was an inspired title for a book that delivered on its promise: brilliantly idiosyncratic, unclassifiable, unforgettable.

But LILA: AN INQUIRY INTO MORALS? That’s a title as ponderous and uninviting as its predecessor was flamboyant and intriguing. Unfortunately, the disappointment for readers doesn’t end with the title. Seventeen years after his first book, Robert Pirsig has published another philosophical tale, billed as a novel only for lack of a better term. Ashore for a break from a voyage up the Hudson River, Phaedrus (Pirsig’s alter ego) picks up a woman in a bar; she ends up back on his sailboat. Richard Rigel, the skipper of another boat, warns Phaedrus that the woman, Lila, will bring trouble. Sarcastically referring to Phaedrus’ obsessive philosophical quest (familiar to readers of ZEN), Rigel asks Phaedrus if Lila has Quality. Phaedrus surprises him by answering yes. The rest of the book could be loosely described as a weighing and justification of Phaedrus’ answer.

Odd notions about the impact of Native Americans on American culture, a critique of the anthropology establishment, extensive theorizing about the evolution of values and social structures— all this and more is intercut with chapters focusing on Lila afloat and ashore. (Some of the latter chapters attempt, with disastrous results, third-person narration from Lila’s viewpoint; these are the book’s most “novelistic” sections, and they serve primarily to confirm that the author is no novelist.) While there are flashes of Pirsig’s distinctive insight and wit, moments recalling the exhilaration of ZEN, this sequel is destined to survive only as a footnote.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. October 13, 1991, XIV, p. 3.

The Christian Science Monitor. November 5, 1991, p. 15.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 27, 1991, p. 2.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVIII, December 19, 1991, p. 59.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, October 13, 1991, p. 15.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, August 16, 1991, p. 44.

The Spectator. CCLXVII, October 19, 1991, p. 39.

Time. CXXXVIII, October 28, 1991, p. 93.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 18, 1991, p. 21.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, October 13, 1991, p. 3.