“It’s the way a man chooses to limit himself that determines his character. A man without habits, consistency, redundancy – and hence boredom – is not human. He’s insane.”
Let’s be clear: The Dice Man does not invite or reward any kind of sustained critical attention. It is an airport novel, and a particularly obnoxious one at that. It was published in 1969, and it has not aged well at all. It is, in a word, shit.
The novel presents itself as the Thrilling Autobiography! of Luke Rhinehart, a psychiatrist growing ever more disillusioned with his comfortable middle-class life. In an attempt to make himself feel better about it all, he turns to the dice: not gambling, but allowing chance to take over his life, writing down a series of options and rolling dice to find out which he will take. Inevitably, all kinds of shenanigans ensue as he spirals further and further out of control, as he steals, lies, cheats and has copious amounts of inventive sex. It’s Thomas Pynchon, without the depth, wit or humanity.
There’s the beginnings of a conversation here about the social constitution of madness. It’s a commonplace in critical theory nowadays that madness is a form of resistance to cultural pressures, an inability to conform that’s pathologised by mainstream society. And there is, indeed, a sense of anger here at the restriction of social convention, the boundedness of corporate America: it’s no coincidence that Rhinehart works as a psychiatrist, curing those social dissidents of their malaise so that they become functioning members of the machine again, or alternatively locking them away in a mental asylum (one of the big set-pieces of the latter half of the book is precisely a mass breakout from an asylum, orchestrated by Rhinehart himself. The symbolism is not subtle). There’s some rather wonderful psychological guff about diceliving breaking down the “majority self” to allow countless “minority selves” to express themselves, figuring ordinary living as a constant state of repression.
In short, the narrative is asking us to see Rhinehart as a victim of cultural prejudice: while the outside world deems him unstable and mad due to his erratic changes of direction, we are privy to his inmost thoughts and motivations and are therefore supposed to realise that he’s as sane as we are. “It is,” (as Morpheus from The Matrix would say) “the world that has been pulled over our eyes to blind us to the truth.”
Only, I think there are a couple of things that shock us out of our relating to Rhinehart as the narrative needs us to do. Firstly, Rhinehart is pretty literally as privileged as you can get: white, middle-class, rich enough to leave work for long periods without noticing a marked depreciation in quality of life. Cultural prejudice? Please.
The other thing? The Dice Man is seriously rapey. Rhinehart’s diceliving begins when he decides to rape his downstairs neighbour Arlene if a pair of dice are showing a certain combination of numbers (please don’t make me go back and look up which ones they are). Of course, they are and he does. Only she enjoys it more than he does. This is not a helpful contribution to the cause of women’s rights.
And there’s at least one other occasion (that I can remember) when Rhinehart manipulates a woman into sex (by pretending to be a Catholic priest, as part of allowing the expression of his minority selves). Even by sixties standards this is pretty offensive.
The ironic thing is that this prioritisation of one’s own individual enjoyment above everyone else’s is almost as capitalist as it gets. Protesting against capitalist America, the book takes capitalism to extremes: communities and relationships don’t matter to the disciples of the dice, because they get in the way of fulfilment, or something. Perhaps in another novel this irony would be the point. Here? It manifestly isn’t. This is misfiring American libertarianism, and it is bloody irritating.