On the surface this classic novel is about what happens to an individual who decides to allow fate to intervene in their daily life. But actually it’s much more complex than simply being about a man who takes decisions based on the role of a die.
Published and set in the 1970s, the story follows a bored psychiatrist Luke Rhinehart, obviously going through some form of mid-life crisis, who in a moment of madness (or clarity depending on how you view things) starts to live his life based on the roll of a die. He does this by coming up with several options (such as which film to see, or whether to seduce someone) and assigning them to the dice role. By playing with the number of choices and whether to act on them on a 1 in six, chance, Dr. Rhinehart can slightly influence the outcome.
What makes the book clever is its deeply subversive nature. It takes up questions like “what is sanity”, and pokes fun at established Psychiatric practice. It also raises interesting questions about who really is sane and insane. For instance, as Rhinehart increasingly lets the dice rule his life, he incorporates them into his work, as well as his personnel life. This leads him to what can be seen as bizarre solutions to patient problems. For instance – for a woman who is diagnosed as having “nymphomania” he suggests a period of work in a brothel – apart from the comic element, I think the author is trying to raise the question of whether or not nymphomania is a medical condition that needs to be “treated”.
The story reminds me of Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Not least because the idea of someone creating a new way of looking at the world and achieving a mass following mirrors the plot of that novel. But the Dice Man also shares much with Valentine Michael Smith – a comic naivety for instance, that allows the author to explore the contradictions of society.
Ultimately, as more and more people start to follow the Dice, the movement with its attendant radical attitudes to sexuality, living and money becomes far too subversive for society and the FBI are called in. The later parts of the novel use this much more – with radical black activists (clearly modeled on the Black Panther Party) getting involved. Rhinehart makes illusions to the way the authorities try to undermine the Dice movement – similar to how the Black Panthers found themselves undermined in the 1970s.
The novel achieved a cult following and I’ve no doubt many people tried to live their lives in similar ways. The problem is of course, that while living like this really might breakdown your personality and let the “real you” come out, as Rhinehardt the Psychiatrist suggests, what is really being railed at here is the problems with society – and those cannot be undermined by personal change – however radical. In that sense, this novel is a real product of the 1970s – radical and challenging, but ultimately doomed to change only a few people. But reading it, you get a glimpse of just how much the 1960s and 1970s radicalised huge numbers of people, and that number of people questioning the status quo can only be a good thing!