"The Dice Man" was first published in 1971; written by George Cockcroft under the guise of his alter ego, Luke Rhinehart, the book attracted a cult following and has remained a popular - and controversial - work, seen by many as subversive and permissive.
Cockcroft had worked in the mental health field in the USA, obtaining his doctorate in psychology from Columbia, then taught English and psychology before becoming a full-time writer with the success of "The Dice Man". Marketed with the subheading, 'This book can change your life', it poses as a work of non-fiction, apparently written as an autobiographical insight by successful New York psychoanalyst, Luke Rhinehart. Rhinehart reflects on his successes and notoriety, the book being presented as a retrospective on his life, an explanation of how he came to discover the dice phenomenon and the major changes to his life occasioned by it.
Inspired by an intriguing happenstance, Rhinehart one day makes a decision. He lists half a dozen options then rolls the die to decide which one he should follow. The result pushes his boundaries and opens up a new set of experiences. Bit by bit, he hands his life over to decisions made by roll of the die. The result is a hilarious, amoral rampage of a novel as he infects others with his ideas and injects a pattern of chaos into the chaotic order of his urbane, successful world.
Rhinehart pushes the boundaries to extremes and beyond. It contrasts with Cockroft's own dicing lifestyle - he says he started rolling dice to break down his shyness and stuffiness as an academically inclined teenager. He saw rolling a die as a means to break away from habit and reformulate himself. It wasn't until he was teaching psychology that he posed the question to one of his classes, asking them whether the ultimate freedom lay in making all decisions randomly, by throw of the die. Thus were sown the seeds of "The Dice Man".
Written at a fast pace, the novel swings back and forth between first person and third person perspectives, pasting together material apparently drawn from a variety of sources and maintaining the fiction that it is, in reality, a piece of fact - a confessional written by a notorious pillar of the anti-psychiatry movement.
The novel is a savage indictment of psychoanalysis and the therapy culture, and some of the funniest moments are where he debunks the role of the shrink, presenting it as the imposition of a set of subjective, professional values and interpretations rather than any healing or liberation of the individual. Psychoanalysis is presented as enforced dependency, the individual dancing to the tune of the therapist's cash register and ego.
Cockcroft says he feels that use of dice is a means of challenging the ego, of allowing experimentation with self. People are desperate for change, are never satisfied with what they've got or who they are, but they are trapped by their own habits and constrained thinking.
The die provides a series of windows into another you, another life. He famously argued that we should, everyday, make a conscious decision to tell one lie - he's not encouraging deceit in order to harm others, but an acting out of fantasy, taking your conscious self into new areas where you are forced to live by your wits and think, thereby giving you a new perspective on yourself and your identity.
Life too easily becomes a set of habits, a pattern of routines. Cockroft insists that life is too precious to just allow it to drift, to allow habit to dictate, making the same decision again and again. More dangerously, he feels, we can become slaves to our perceptions of morality and order. He believes that religious certainties are highly dangerous - we cannot allow individuals to impose on us their specific view of what their god is supposed to have said, we cannot allow people to present morality and belief as a set of textbook certainties which demand blind obedience and adherence.
Though the hero of the book is male, and some of the female characters appear only to serve male fantasies and needs, Cockroft insists that women are more subservient to roles than are males - there is greater social pressure on them to conform to more limited roles, to fill specific stereotypes. They therefore have a greater need, and greater opportunity to break the mold - though doing so may provoke greater criticism.
Reading "The Dice Man" may not change your life, but its ribald, explicit amorality should make you laugh ... and will hopefully make you think. This is not a bland novel, one which can be treated with indifference. It will outrage some, it will intrigue others, it might inspire ... you might even find yourself looking in the toy cupboard for a set of dice. A very funny book, very 70's, but with the ability to reach down the years and still amuse, it remains a passionate indictment of psychoanalysis and the therapy culture, and should be compulsory reading for anyone following a psychology, social work, or medical course.