An­other throw. the au­thor of cult clas­sic The Dice Man is back

SFX - - Contents - Words by Jonathan Wright /// Photography by Peter van Agt­mael

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.


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.

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