April 10, 2010

THE DICE MAN

by Luke Rhinehart
560 pages, HarperCollins

Flip by Pat Black

So, this is how you do it. You take a piece of paper and write down six outcomes. For example:

1. I make another cup of tea.

2. I go on a day trip to the capital with some friends

3. I stay home and write reviews and articles.

4. I call my girlfriend out of a sleep after she’s been on nightshift just to tell her I love her.

5. I go outside and do fifty press-ups on the decking, in full view of the neighbours.

6. I get my guitar out of the cupboard and master Spinal Tap’s “Sex Farm”, solos and all.

Then you get a die and flip it: whichever number comes up corresponds to an outcome on your piece of paper. And you have to make the outcome a reality.

It’s exciting. There’s a wee buzz as you flip the dice from the aged Cluedo set – good old Waddingtons red with white spots – and you watch the patterns blur as it falls and scatters across the floor. As you go over to see what’s come up, you get a sense that you’ve surrendered something, plugged into an alternative power source. You’re ready to duck, ready to dive, ready to say goodbye to being alive.

The juice isn’t quite there after you’ve gone through your first set of fifty press-ups in months. Worse than that, my neighbours to the left were outside, pottering around in their shed. And I felt great shame upon seeing the state of my decking in extreme close-up; it needs a scrub and a varnishing, even the woodlice are shunning it now. Still, there was suspense when the die was in the air.

This problematic concept – surrendering your free will to the rule of the die, with one hard and fast rule: you must obey – is a fundamental plank of Luke Rhinehart’s cult bestseller, The Dice Man. The narrator is a bored psychiatrist (also called Luke Rhinehart) who begins to experiment with Flipism, going on to use the technique as a form of therapy for his patients as a way out of their hang-ups and problems.

The way Rhinehart sees it, a big flaw in the human condition comes from following the rules. This might mean something as broad as social conventions and taboos, eg: I find the woman downstairs attractive – so why don’t I rape her? It could also refer to something more subjective, like the pressure you might feel of simply being you: mother; boyfriend; boss; son; man; woman; types and tropes, the lines we all fall into as part of society. Rhinehart’s genuinely subversive notion is that by casting these rules and roles aside, with one throw of the dice, you free yourself of the shackles of being you, you allow yourself to have different experiences and through all this, you get a greater sense of self through being completely free.

It is a thrilling idea – to begin with. I first read the Dice Man 11 years ago when the concept underwent a kind of revival in the UK, championed by lads’ mags like Loaded and FHM. I think I even recall a columnist who lived his life by the dice, who started off by recounting a tale of how he lost his virginity thanks to Flipism. One of the options himself and a friend chose out of the six was to visit a prostitute one afternoon when they bunked off school.

I tried to incorporate dice techniques into nights out with my mates; a few were up for it, others were cynical. Surrendering to the dice, or not, can be seen as an interesting psychological study in itself, something Dr Rhinehart the professional might have been interested in. Some people just were not into this – and I should stress that the options we chose for our nights out weren’t at all outlandish or sleazy – absolutely hating this removal of personal choice. The experiment failed after a couple of attempts when the dice chose incredibly dull options for us to follow. One of them was that half of the night out complement had to go home; another invited us to go to a very dull pub. I guess we’ve only got ourselves to blame.

Rhinehart’s adventures certainly have a lot more colour to them. The book’s shocking opening sees the psychiatrist playing a mental game with himself. There’s a die lying under a playing card after a dull evening at home with his wife, and Rhinehart tells himself that if the die is showing a one, he will go downstairs and rape Arlene, his neighbour. He turns over the card, and – my goodness. A one. He gets his coat, leaves his apartment and knocks on Arlene’s door.

No rape takes place, of course. Rhinehart tells his neighbour that he is there to rape her. Arlene, who finds Dr Rhinehart rather dishy (he tells us repeatedly that he looks like Superman), isn’t entirely against the idea. We get a massive thrill as we watch Rhinehart set himself more and more challenges, with more and more outlandish outcomes. I laughed out loud on public transport when he makes himself stop every few steps in the street and does some press-ups. Colleagues and family members begin to notice his apparent degradation, but Rhinehart is always calm and clinical, rationalising that which is patently barmy to the rest of us. I loved these scenes, and every set of choices he outlines totally electrifies the narrative. It’s a controlled descent into madness, and we’re right there with him.

For this reason, the Dice Man is one of my favourite books. It’s pure anarchy allied with sober psychological theory. There have been a few imitators – Dave Gorman’s Googlewhack and Yes Man by Danny Wallace take on similar concepts of randomness – but there’s little to match the giddy freewheeling nature of Rhinehart’s masterpiece.

But, perhaps like tending to your own flock, I tend to be a little bit harsh with The Dice Man for the parts where it goes wrong. For one thing, it’s a product of its time. Rhinehart tries to embrace radical politics, with a cult of the dice springing up around him as a messianic figure, leading to groups and bodies such as Fuck Without Fear For Fun and Profit, rebellion on the streets, armed insurrection and a real sense of anarchy. The first person narrative is broken up with journal entries, transcripts of TV appearances and interviews, which rather than providing a complex framework for the novel seems to make it more complicated than it needs to be. It all seems a bit much, and takes us away from the initial thrill of seeing a man casting off the cloak of mediocrity he has allowed to settle over his shoulders.

We do see some consequences to Rhinehart’s lack of responsibility, particularly in the break-up of his married life and the estrangement of his son, who he involves in his dice antics. But the selfishness of Rhinehart as he goes off on his potty random adventures barely passes comment; he grows into a messianic role, not unlike Fight Club’s narrator, and we lose something of the personal touch along the way. And in its attempts to grapple with radical politics – the book was published in 1971, when we had Vietnam, the decline of the hippy ethos and second-wave feminism to think about, among other things – the book seems dated and somewhat goofy. More than one person who I’ve loaned the book out to has complained that as the book loses focus, they lost interest; certainly there is an awful lot of The Dice Man that might have been bettered served with some diligent pruning.

But, it is what it is. However much the author of the Dice Man (real name George Cockroft) might lead us to believe that he is this messianic superhero of the self, and that he firmly adheres to the Rule of the Die, his concept has a flaw. It isn’t entirely random. The surrender is diluted.

If you go back to my six outcomes at the top, well, there’s a whiff of fait accompli about them. Another cup of tea is pretty much a given for me, if I’m within 20 feet of a kettle. I’m heading out for a day out in the capital any road up; my good lady wouldn’t have appreciated the declaration of love while she sleeps, but I’m sure she’d have gotten over it. I practically know “Sex Farm” already – (E, D, C with a bit of hammer-on, I reckon). And writing articles… well, duh. That just leaves the press-ups stunt, which unfortunately for me was what came up. But maybe there’s a part of me that wanted to do some press-ups. Maybe I want to shock my neighbours, to revel in my status as “That Man” from next door. Maybe I wanted to impress them with my manly pursuits, rippling muscles and ursine upper body strength. Or maybe not.

This relates back to some of Rhinehart’s more outré challenges and outcomes, in particular the one where he chooses having a homosexual experience as one option, which duly turns up. This leads to a hilariously brief chapter – “This is gonna hurt” – but one has to wonder why Rhinehart would include this as an option anyway. Deep down, does he want to have a homosexual experience? How is such an experience really going to benefit him as a person, or make him freer, or a more-rounded individual if it’s something he is not wired up to like? Because you choose the outcomes, at some level, there is still a subjective decision being made. It’s an illusion of randomness, a sop to the forces of chaos. Surely we all have grooves to slide into, pathways that we like to follow? Randomness, chaos and anarchy are fun for a while, but these are not forces to adhere to. This cannot ever be a lifestyle decision.

But, if you’re up for it, we can conduct an experiement. You can circumvent the subjectivity flaw – you can get some randomness back into your life, if you think you might benefit from it. You can submit to my choices, not yours.

If you’re up for it, I will give you six options – so you don’t even need the pen and paper. All you need is a die. Maybe you can get it from an old Cluedo or Monopoly set, or plunder it from your kids’ own board games.

Are you ready? Here goes:

1. Within the next seven days, kiss someone who is not your partner

2. Say the word “f*ck” in front of someone you wouldn’t ordinarily dare to

3. Apply for another job – any job; the first one you come across in the paper

4. Have a T-shirt made with your own face front and centre, and the message “F*ck Yeah!” on the back

5. During your next dinner party, make a Close Encounters mountain out of whatever food comes to hand. Do not explain what you’re doing

6. Draw a large p*nis and hairy b*lls on a toilet stall door at work

Aren’t you naughty?

And remember – one rule: you must obey.

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