On a recent getaway to Cyprus with the family I decided to catch up on some much needed reading, and thought I’d use the week long break to delve into a curious novel I’d been given a while back, but yet picked up, The Dice Man. Bar exception to the precautionary blurb opening “This book can change your life. If you dare try it”, nothing could of prepared me for the shock and depravity that I was to encounter in its coming chapters.
Ultimately a story of chance, superstition, depravity and psychoanalysis intertwined, it journeys into the mind of a depressed and uninspired psychiatrist, who longs to break free from the shackles of routine and order that have long made his life mundane and predictable. In every sense the confessional autobiography, its straight talking, erratic prose has an almost stream of consciousness flow, as protagonist Luke moves from the self loathing, to self righteousness, and eventually omniscient narrator. What starts as a seemingly harmless role of a dice, creates for Luke outlandish, unreasoned scenarios of rape, murder and god playing. Essentially he is the Psychiatrist who can solve everyone Else’s problems except his own.
At first the novel reads rather harmlessly as a tongue-in-cheek day in the life of dull, ordinary forty something husband and father “I look like Clark Kent, except that when I take off my business suit I am barely faster than my wife.. [and have] two lovely, non-neurotic and abnormal children” (11). We then get a glimpse of Luke’s stifling sense of creativity and job satisfaction in the workplace: “The most I had come to hope for was to free a patient from anxiety and conflict” (14). His relationship to his wife is equally one of mediocre. It’s only once we encounter contemplations of suicide and violence however that we begin to learn of Luke’s fast approaching cerebral meltdown, on the brink of which opens a door to a whole new world of risk, discovery and freedom.
His first encounter with the dice comes shortly after a heated round table discussion with co-workers. Arguing his corner, Luke maintains, “analysis.. should be able to change me, to change anything and anybody, to eliminate all undesired neurotic symptoms and to do it much more quickly than the two years necessary to produce most measurable changes in people” (64) , before going on to propose, “perhaps we ought to do away with the..pattern of accumulated limitations and potentials of an individual [to break]… the solidifying flow of personality [that] has nothing to offer to the main who is bored” (65). His theories are dismissed as fantastical eastern mysticism, on account of his recent dabbling in Zen which as colleague Jake Ecstein puts, have rendered him “bored with the day-to-day miracles of making people slightly better”(66).
Returning home he struts around his study, reflecting on the days events, and notices out of the corner of his eye a dice hidden beneath a playing card- the remnants of a night of drunken poker. In the blink of an eye his mind erupts with a series of denominations for the dice, which includes the fatal 1/6 option of rape if a one is rolled. As fate plays its cruel hand, Luke proceeds to rape his neighbour and co-workers wife, Arlene, in what kick starts not only a new way of life for Luke and those around him, but also a groundbreaking new therapy in the world of psychiatry.
Dice Therapy, as it comes to be acknowledged, is a practice which encourages patients to reach decisions by casting dice. In doing so it aims to destroy the personality by replacing the single integrated self with a multiplicity of characters, which as Luke’s peers note, subverts the very essence of western psychology. As its rejection in the psychiatry community grows, so too does Luke’s practice of the therapy intensify and expand, as Dice Therapy schools start to spring up worldwide, drawing husband and wife, esteemed scholars and even fellow psychiatrists from Luke’s own backyard. Its fixation of role-playing creates in Luke a circus troupe of weird and world characters that threaten to shatter not only his sense of self, but also his sense of belonging to the world around him. And as the chapters sail by, so too does that feeling that time is running out for our self styled Napoleon.
Published in 1971, the novel captures the prevailing anti-psychiatry feeling of the decade and at the time came to be banned in several countries. Now acknowledged as a cult classic, its spawned other such stories of deluded self identity as ‘Yes Man’ (Danny Wallace ), Coma (Alex Garland) and White Noise (De Lillo).True to the claim “this book will change your life”, The Dice Man is not for the faint hearted nor narrow minded. Be Warned. Enjoy.