Thursday, August 11, 2011
The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart
Sophomore year in college I bought a really idiotic book called something along the lines of, America's Best Cult Fiction. What can I say? I wanted (okay, fine - want) to be a cool kid, and that meant (means) reading more obscure - but good - books than anyone else. So I read a book to tell me what books to read to be cool. (See that awesome logic there?) Ultimately, being the poor person I was (am), I could only afford to buy one real book after the purchase. So, after carefully studying my options, I bought The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart (which is a pen name - henceforth when I'm speaking about the author, I'll refer to him by his real name, George Cockcroft (yes, that is a ridiculous surname) to avoid confusion). I then ignored it for three years. I do that a lot, I know.
Two months ago I hauled it back with me to New York from California, and I finally got around to starting it last week. And couldn't stop. Which, for the first time in my history as a reader, actually worried me a bit. There was something freakishly seductive about the book and the lifestyle it was fictionalizing, something oddly compelling about abandoning the construction of self for a life lived purely based on the whims of chance.
The premises of the book is thus: What if you left every decision up to the roll of a die?
Luke Rhinehart is a perfectly dull psychiatrist living in New York City. He is bored with his life, depressed, and considering suicide. Then, one night after playing a game of cards with his colleagues, wife, and neighbors, as he's cleaning up he decides to follow an irrational - and therefore incredibly powerful - impulse; if the hidden die he's about to pick up has a one face up, he will rape* his colleague's wife. When he looks, the die shows a one.
* Before we continue on with the review, let's take a moment to pause and delve into my personal reaction. Because this is my blog, dammit, and I get to do that if I want to. I'm a feminist. And like all feminists, I have my own definition of what it means to be a feminist. Rape is one of my 'hot item' issues. So you can imagine my shock when on the 36th page of 300 page novel, the main character blithely decides to go downstairs (Luke's colleague is also his neighbor) and rape a woman. Especially since it becomes clear that we're not supposed to find the act all that despicable. If I hadn't been 15 minutes into an hour long commute to work, I probably would have put the book down and frowned a great deal. However, good books aren't always about things we're necessarily comfortable with, and I'm very happy that I got over my initial hesitation and continued reading. Thanks, ridiculously long commute!
After convincing the at first reluctant woman (Arlene), the rape takes place with great pleasure and abandon from both parties, and Rhinehart's dicelife begins.** At first, Luke keeps his experiment limited to small, private, matters. What to tell his colleague (Jake) about the affair with his wife, if anything. What to do about said affair. Buying and reading magazines he wouldn't normally look at twice. Being especially kind to his wife. Then he ups the stakes. He goes to random bars and assumes roles to act out among strangers. He starts treating his patients with methods, and personalities, determined by the dice. He pretends to be Jesus while treating men in a mental hospital.
** Does this mean it was still a rape? Given the way it is depicted in the novel, I would say no, as Arlene does eventually gives consent, even if she doesn't instigate and calls it a rape along with Luke. Does the the term and how liberally it is used in the novel still bother me? Yes. Do I feel uncomfortable calling it 'not a real rape' when the woman was clearly reluctant? Yes. Discomfort noted? Excellent! Now, to continue on with the review!
Luke's goal is simple - he will destroy the personality, since the personality destroys multitudes and change, which are in of themselves the very nature of man. A firm sense of self, he decides, is a construct created to make an individual stable, 'sane.' It is not, however, representative of a person's true self, since there is no consistent true self. Therefore, it makes much more sense to instead encourage people to dedicate themselves to chance, since chance is reliably unreliable.
Eventually, Luke attracts followers, dice-ing becoming a way of life, a psychiatric theory, and even a religion.
Fun, right? And we haven't even talked about the structure of the book. The novel is presented as an autobiography (which is being written because the dice ordered Rhinehart to write one exactly 160,000 words in length, obviously). It oscillates between first and third person (often within the same chapter, as Rhinehart can often refer to "Rhinehart" as a role he's playing). It contains smatterings of article clippings, letters, and even a TV segment. Its timeline jumps all over the place. We switch points of view. Major events are glossed over, while minor ones are given ridiculous amounts of attention. Important pieces of literature, music, and even the religious texts are sampled from and reappropriated to relate to dicelife.
I would think that this scattered narrative would lead to a slightly traumatic literary experience, but it was actually the opposite. The randomness of it all made the entire read all the more compelling. How much time would we spend with Luke as he looses his license to practice psychiatry? How about his homoerotic experiences? Will we be able to see how the CETREs (Centers for Experiments in Totally Random Events) function? And how much explanation would we be given when Luke is forced to leave his wife and family forever because of the die? Will the dice order him to kill his son? Will he help 37 mental patients escape from a hospital?
And on and on and on. You are constantly in suspense, because literally anything could happen next. It's not exactly a highly sophisticated or well-structured narrative, but it certainly is a compelling one that retains a progressive structure despite everything (and there's a lot) working against it. And that's not even including the author himself. George Cockcroft is a real-life diceman. Although he never went to the extents that his fictional doppelganger does (I hope) he actually uses dice to make life decisions, and did have a band of hippie followers in the 70s. Which then adds an additional layer of confusion as to how much of this fictional autobiography is an actual autobiography.
Ultimately, the book becomes about Rhinehart's fall into anarchy. Normally, I would consider that sort of thing to be a tragic end to a novel, but here it's a triumph. The book concludes in total chaos, without any sort of satisfying finish, and with no notion as to what exactly the reader is supposed to do with the experience the novel has given them.
As such, it ends in the same spirit in which it was written.
So the night I finished The Dice Man, instead of trying to ascertain a great meaning behind the novel I had just finished, I pulled out my apartment's Monopoly set and decided what to eat for dinner based on the roll of the die. It landed on a four. Peas, applesauce and yogurt. Damn delicious.