Another throw. the author of cult classic The Dice Man is back
The Dice Man speaks!
six or seven years ago, Luke Rhinehart thought he was done with writing. Then, a little to his own surprise, a new idea began to coalesce. Having toyed with the idea of writing a non-fiction book called The Lies We Live By, the author of cult classic The Dice Man (of which more later) realised he could better tackle the theme of “living with illusions that are not helpful” within the pages of a novel.
The result is Invasion, a comic tale of what happens when super-intelligent, shape-shifting, fun-loving furry aliens, FFs, arrive on our planet. “They don’t want to conquer, they don’t want to observe, they just want to hang out with this new planet,” says Rhinehart down the line from his home in New York State. Sound like great houseguests, what could possibly go wrong?
From the perspective of those in power, plenty. Because the FFs “have no biases” and “see human beings and their modern civilisation as a cancer”, they begin playing games to help us see where we’re going wrong. “Their games undermine all the established institutions of modern society: banks, corporations, government spy agencies, the military, politicians,” says Rhinehart.
While Invasion was written long before Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump began their tilts at the presidency, it’s a book that seems to reflect anti-establishment sentiments out in the wider world. But perhaps any new Luke Rhinehart would seem apposite at the moment.
To understand why, we need to go back to the 1960s. Back then, Rhinehart, aka George Cockcroft, was an academic who wrote occasionally in his spare time. By his early thirties, he’d written just “four or five short stories and a dozen poems”. Then he began the book that led to a career change, The Dice Man, the tale of a bored psychiatrist (named, rather confusingly, Luke Rhinehart) who begins to make life decisions on the basis of throwing dice.
ROLLING THE DICE
After four years, he’d completed just 222 pages, but in 1969 a manuscript found its way to start-up publishers Talmy Franklin. “At the rate I was going, I might never have finished the book,” he says. “I’m not like most writers who are quite ambitious or start writing at a very young age.”
In 1971, The Dice Man was published. To date, it’s sold upwards of 2m copies. So why did it so connect? It’s perhaps because it’s in key respects a book about being in the moment, about (that theme again) letting go of illusions, and this captures people’s imaginations. “Decisions happen, and if you realise that decisions happen rather than there’s some creature inside you that can make a decision or not, that lets life flow much more easily,” says Rhinehart.
It helps too that The Dice Man is funny, subversive and “very amoral” – so much so that one of Rhinehart’s aunts, after finishing the novel, threw it in the garbage. Conversely, says Rhinehart, “Most readers who like the book are never tempted to try some serious dicing, but they ‘get’ the book enough to feel much freer than before they read it.”
As to where The Dice Man sprang from stylistically, Rhinehart isn’t certain. “I’m not quite sure what influenced it,” he says. “One of my favourite books had been Catch-22, which was a very comic novel, but I also was a fan of Dostoyevsky so it’s strange.” Nevertheless, he highlights the “confessional style” of Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground, a proto-existentialist novella narrated by an embittered civil servant, and bleak even by the standards of “the least comic novelist in the history of the world”.
Maybe all of this makes more sense when Rhinehart also goes on to namecheck Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, one of the wellsprings of American comic fiction, for its colloquial style and because “[Huck]’s sort of foolish at times, but we like him anyway. I think the same is true of Luke.”
By this he means Luke Rhinehart the narrator of The Dice Man rather than his novelistic nom de plume, although narrator and author have much in common. In particular, both have a capacity for being contradictory, possibly even infuriating – rather like Huck and, from a very different angle, Dostoyevsky’s unnamed narrator. In 2013, the novelist wrote to 25 friends and relatives to announce that Luke Rhinehart was dead. Some didn’t believe him, but others thought the author had left this mortal coil.
So is his work essentially serious? Is he a prankster by nature? “I’m afraid I’m often guilty in my books of preaching seriously that we shouldn’t take anything seriously,” says Rhinehart. “I see the contradiction.” It’s there, he says, in the way he sometimes makes fun of his own characters in his books, adding, “The subject is why are most human beings unhappy and unfulfilled, but the message should always have a smile or laugh attached.”
In the work of Luke Rhinehart, subject, message and laughter recur, although not that often as, in keeping with his worldview, Rhinehart is hardly prolific. “I feel ambition is a form of western sickness, so I’m a pretty laid-back fellow,” he says.