The first sentence in the blurb of The Dice Man is a bold one.
‘This book can change your life.’
It’s a hell of a claim. But for a lot of people the book is more than just a marketing gimmick. Musicians like Aphex Twin and The Cure have referenced it, Richard Branson and other notable figures claim to have been inspired by it, and since before it was even released, Hollywood executives have been weighing the counterculture potential it has to generate enormous sums of money. Even so, if you’ve ever tried to share the book on one of your friends, you’ve probably had to explain what it’s all about: Published in 1971, The Dice Man is an absolutely demented comic novel about a character named Luke who attempts to live his life by the roll of a dye. How to raise his child, who he should sleep with, and whether he should kill a person are they’re all given over to chance. As Luke embarks on this series of depraved adventures, the lifestyle he develops is particularly provocative because at the beginning of the story he’s still a practising psychiatrist – accomplished and wealthy but bored to the point of tears.
To his bizarre array of patients he can only say that they’ll feel just as empty as he does if they ever manage to achieve some level of stability. And while this isn’t exactly a comforting message, for a narrative that aims to alter your perspective on life, it is a suitably compelling one.
As a rule, self-help books generally try to improve the level of their readerships happiness. These books can come in the form of literary allegories, psychiatric advice, spiritual texts, or even as some weird cross section of all three. Whatever the case, their method is generally to help their readers fit the expectations of society. This is something that The Dice Man doesn’t just neglect in its 543 pages. Rather, it outright insists the desire for happiness will only lead to further despair because as far as Luke is concerned, it’s the expectations of society that have constrained him to such a miserable existence. The laws of chance are what help him to break free.
At its core, The Dice Man’s theory is that we each have minority impulses that get stifled by our everyday personalities. Often, when we refuse to acknowledge these impulses, we experience periodic waves of discontent. Though this is an issue that conventional therapy also aims to address, where Dice Therapy differs is in its refusal to establish yet another set of limitations. After all, to be stationary is to be stagnant. In order to avoid repeated spells of depression, a person must constantly reexamine their outlook and challenge themselves to find fresh experience. Never been punched in the face? Then ask the dice whether you should start a bar fight. Are you one-hundred per cent sure that you’re attracted to women? Then you’ll certainly have to ask if you should sleep with a man. Taken to its extreme, the Dice Life asks you to forget about your own desires and to let go of anything you could identify as self. Most well-adjusted people would call the process insane. But what’s really striking is that the character of Luke would probably agree: If insanity is his refusal to conform, then the voluntary deconstruction of his personality is a direct response to a world that’s let him down.
The Dice Man was written during a time of tremendous upheaval in America.
Homegrown terrorist groups like The Weather Men were at odds with the United States government, while people like Luke’s real-life contemporary, Werner Erhard, were encouraging the nation to explore their sense of self with seminars that grew out of The Human Potential Movement. Whatever you think about the successes and failures of this time, it’s important to note that there were conscious attempts to provoke a massive cultural shift. Still, for many today the era only amounts to a grain filtered montage wherein the rebels all moved to the suburbs to take office jobs downtown. If you find this outcome depressing, know that it seems Luke Rhinehart did too. In The Dice Man, when his character finally convinces his family and friends to try The Dice Life, they only adopt it as a way to introduce some variety to their mundane routine. All in all, the second Luke’s morally corrupt lifestyle becomes watered down, it’s about as exciting as a key party at a nursing home. Luckily he’s able to overcome this stumbling block in a way that only fiction could allow. Once he realises the threat of domestication, he leaves his family to expand on his theory, achieves an almost complete destruction of ego and in the process inspires an anarchist movement that threatens the sanctity of life itself.
When talking about The Dice Man, there are at least two Luke Rhineharts to consider: The fictional version and the one who wrote the novel.
To decipher them, you need to understand that the character of Luke is not named after the author, rather, it’s the author who named himself after the character. In real life, Luke Rhinehart is the pen name of George Cockroft, a man who believes he’s host to numerous personalities, though who by all accounts has settled into the kind of ordinary existence that his fictional self once fought against. Given the discrepancy between them, it would be easy to call The Dice Man a mere act of wish fulfilment, but that would be limiting it to a singular form.
The Dice Man is an angry book. In it, a militant christian boy is as much of a stand-in for George Cockroft as Luke is.
The Dice Man is an example of pure anarchy. It’s so dedicated to its vision of chaos that it can’t help but undercut its earnestness with absurd moments of comedy at every turn.
The Dice Man is an act of catharsis. The pain vented throughout isn’t just Luke’s, it’s George’s too – the man who created Luke to express his anxiety and to achieve a level of enlightenment he couldn’t hope to attain in reality.
More than anything though, this is a book whose writer poured himself into every page and allowed the book to pour itself back into him. George’s personal malaise became the fuel for Luke’s actions and Luke’s actions became the ideal for George to strive to. If we’re to stand them beside one another, it’s not for the sake of measuring whether the actual man lived up to his imaginary character, it’s to appreciate how the blurred lines between them have created a mixture of fact and fiction that’s intrigued readers for almost fifty years.
The Dice Man is a book that can change your life.
For many people, this means doing things they’ve always been afraid to try. Given the amount of sex, drugs and violence throughout, it’s easy to see how it can act as an inspiration for anybody who feels tied down, but there’s a lot more depth to it than that. Through Luke’s actions, we see that his personal development can’t be separated from that of the political landscape that surrounds him. Each and every American institution is dismantled as he challenges the reader to reevaluate whether the pursuit of happiness is really a worthy goal. When he encourages you to take up the dye, he is in fact asking you to make a protest against anybody who would say that you should be content with the world as it stands. While at times The Dice Man might seem like nothing more than a vulgar fantasy, it actually gathers an immense amount of power from being a work of pure fiction. Unbound from the laws of reality, both the character and pen name of Luke Rhinehart are symbols that can never fade. By the final chapter, Luke’s revolution hangs by a thread, but because the climax is left wide open the potential for it to subvert all of society never actually has to end.
Video Media Resource List
Grant & Green by Josh Lippi & The Overtimers
Ocean View by Dyalla
Fatboy Slim: Weapon of Choice (2001)
Fight Club (1999)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
The Simpsons: Bart’s Inner Child (1989-20XX)