BBC Radio 4, 23 June 2012
First published in 1974 after having been rejected by 121 publishers,
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has sold more than five million copies worldwide. According to the BBC's
own publicity, it is dramatist Flannery's favourite book.
Melanie Harris' production could be read on several levels. At the level of plot,
Zen describes a seventeen-day journey across America by Dad (James Purefoy), his son Chris (Max Cazier), and their friends
John and Sylvia (Sean Power, Lucy Newman-Williams), who join them for the first nine days. The adaptation hore distinct
links to road movies such as Easy Rider (1969), in which the journey functioned a voyage of discovery for Dad
and Chris, as they discovered something about themselves and their relationship to one another, and ended up at least temporarily
At another level, Harris' production represented a journey into Dad's soul, as he
speculated on the meaning of life. He saw himself as two personalities, Dad and Phaedrus (after Plato's dialogue): Phaedrus
was a teacher of writing in a small college, who became obsessed with the idea of defining what "quality" was, but could come
up with no satisfactory answer. The only solutions available were to think of it in terms of binary oppositions (quality/
poverty, value/ worthlessness), which for Dad/ Phaedrus seemed to be an artificial way of looking at things. Eventually Phaedrus
was fired from his job at the college, and enrolled in a graduate course, where he still could not find the answer.
Such speculations inevitably led nowhere, and Dad/ Phaedrus was eventually deemed
insane. He was subjected to electric shock treatment that permanently changed his personality. Harris suggested that the world
could not accommodate anyone who questioned the philosophical bases on which it worked, and hence tried to destroy
In structural terms, the production unfolded on at least three narrative levels:
Dad acted as the storyteller, recounting his experiences for the listeners' benefit; he also engaged in the past with the youthful
Chris; and also reported what he had seen in his dreams both before and after the electric shock treatment. Listeners
were required to listen quite attentively, in order to disentangle the various narrative levels, but the experience was a
rewarding one, demonstrating the complexities of the human imagination, which can freely roam across past, present and
The story unfolded as a first-person narrative, told in the kind of American accent which,
for me at least, had strong aural links with radio adaptations of detective thrillers such as those of Raymond Chandler. James
Purefoy's Dad used similar vocal inflections as Toby Stephens' Marlowe in the Radio 4 series broadcast last year. This
vocal association worked quite well: both the Pirsig and the Chandler adaptations explored their respective heroes'
This was an ambitious effort to dramatize a philosophical novel that includes long
philosophical discussions on the nature of being. It is to Flannery's and producer Harris' credit that they produced such
an engrossing adaptation.