Let us give in to the dictates of the dice, that shakeable plastic mandate of chance. Was it not chance that began my Asia sojurn, and was it not chance that brought me to Cambodia? A newspaper article about trafficked children; a one-week trek to investigate further. What if I had not read that particular page of that particular paper that particular day? What if I had been about to read the page when a knock came on my door -- a student early, a teacher confused? Had that occurred, I would not be in Cambodia, and would not now be writing the words you're reading. Given such odds, surely chance has a fortune and trajectory all its own.
Such are the thoughts one has after completing Luke Rhinehart's The Dice Man (which I discussed in the previous post). At first the very concept -- a man deciding to rule his life by the toss of a die -- seems nothing more than a clever gimmick, a post-modern plot device designed to wring a few chuckles out of a conveniently designed narrative hook. Not so. It is, instead, a fundamentally human book, questioning why we are here, where we are going, and what, exactly, is the point of it all.
Consider a scene two-thirds of the way through the book. Rhinehart, about to be banned by the American Medical Association, must defend himself before a committee of his skeptical peers. What follows is a brilliant dissection of modern-day life, of what is expected of us as individuals, people, parents and citizens. Is it ludicrous to number a series of choices from one to six, roll the dice, and choose the option based on the number that has come up? Perhaps. But what has been the alternative, Rhinehart wonders. A world that insists on a fixed identity, that allows no deviation in thought or routine, is a world consumed by greed and envy, war and pestilence. If, indeed, modern psychiatry is such a wonderful, beneficial development, then why is everyone so supremely fucked-up? Has it to do with our stubborn denial of all of our wishes? The fireman who wishes to sail boats; the businessman who longs for a life in the tropics. We do not allow ourselves to do what we want to do, and are restricted by our very conception of who 'we' are. By using the dice, by allowing random chance to dictate our decisions, we enter an immense degree of excitement and unpredictability into existence. We allow ourselves to do things and think things and be things that we would never do otherwise. The rut of life becomes a meandering path whose ultimate destination will and must remain unknown. A life of freedom, it is.
Brilliant, the book is. Not because it endorses the narrator's thesis, but because it plays it out, advances it, allows us to see the marvels it produces and the horrors it depicts. The dice tells us to rape someone; the dice tells us to murder someone. Do we go through with it? The dice tells us to be loving and kind for no reason; the dice tells us to be gentle. Does that change us in any lasting way? Fascinating, the various permutations that result.
It has been a long, long time that I have a read a novel so full of life and so questioning of life. (The irony being, I suppose, that the book was written a good five years before I was born. How fascinating, I always think, that there were people thinking concepts way beyond my comprehension even before I was conceived. Ideas I'm contemplating for the first time were thought of, mulled over, accepted or dismissed decades and centuries ago. It makes me feel connected to a larger stream of humanity, for some reason.) For many of us, life seems to be set on a pattern: we can see what's coming from day to day, and we can be pretty sure of the results. But to allow chance to play a part, to see the means by which our own personalities could change and shift and transform if we allowed chance to become the predominant mode of our existence -- what strange twists and turns would result!
I have to admit, I'm tempted. Not to, you know, use the dice to decide whether I move from Cambodia to Timbuktu. But to choose this book or that, this movie or that movie -- yes, I can see the fun and play that the dice of chance could inflict.
Ah, but where to stop? That is the what the book asks. What would happen if you push chance to its ultimate end point?