Synopsis: Bored New York psychiatrist begins living his life according to the roll of a dice in order to escape the constraints of his personality. Unpredictable, but ultimately boring.
My Take: There’s promise in the premise of this book. I first heard of “The Dice Man” gimmick via the highly entertaining Discovery Channel travel series of the same name. The concept of someone making decisions according to the roll of a dice certainly adds a healthy dose of conflict and unpredictability to a narrative. Similarly, a mechanism that allows an individual to explore one’s ‘minority self’, the ‘parts’ of you that might want to do something unusual that are ordinarily repressed by your dominant personality, is also intriguing.
However, I just couldn’t get onto this novel’s wavelength. After finishing it, I couldn’t quite work out whether it was satire (and if so, what the main target was – 70s psychiatry? Society in general?), whether it was intended to be subversive or whether it was simply a comic farce. Of course, it shouldn’t matter what the book’s purpose/genre is so long as it’s engaging, but while it is amusing in parts, the novel’s plot aimlessly meanders for so long that by the end, the appeal of the gimmick is thoroughly exhausted.
And so as I was reading “The Dice Man” I was left wondering “What is the point?”. On the one hand the novel is clearly scathingly and amusingly satirical about 70s psychiatry. However, one the other at times the book seems to come perilously close to genuine advocacy of “dice life” as a response to the repressive absurdities of modern society. If you think that this is a naïve reading of an intentionally satirical text, consider that the author claims to have actively used ‘dicing’ himself for a decade before writing “The Dice Man” after musing on the nature of freedom while teaching Nietzsche and Sartre as a psychology lecturer. I may be wrong, but there were plenty of moments while reading “The Dice Man” that my mindset shifted from ‘This is amusing’ to ‘This is absurd’.
While it’s not without redeeming characteristics, unfortunately, I can’t recommend “The Dice Man” to others.
“I shared my office on 57th Street with Dr Jacob Ecstein, young (thirty-three), dynamic (two books published), intelligent (he and I usually agreed), personable (everyone liked him), unattractive (no one loved him), anal (he plays the stock market compulsively), oral (he smokes heavily), non-genital (doesn’t seem to notice women), and Jewish (he knows two Yiddish slang words). Our mutual secretary was a Miss Reingold. Mary Jane Reingold, old (thirty-six), undynamic (she worked for us), unintelligent (she prefers Ecstein to me), personable (everyone felt sorry for her), unattractive (tall, skinny, glasses, no one loved her), anal (obsessively neat), oral (always eating), genital (trying hard), and non-Jewish (finds use of two Yiddish slang words very intellectual). Miss Reingold greeted me efficiently.”
“If that dice has a ‘one’ face up, I thought, I’m going downstairs to rape Arlene. ‘If it’s a one, I’ll rape Arlene’ kept blinking on and off in my mind like a huge neon light and my terror increased. But when I thought if it’s not a one I’ll go to bed, the terror evaporated and excitement swept over me: a one means rape, the other numbers mean bed, the die is cast. Who am I to question the dice?’
Now the curious reader will want to know what kind of an analyst I was. It so happens that I practiced non-directive therapy. For those not familiar with it, the analyst is passive, compassionate, non-interpretive, non-directing. More precisely, he resembles a redundant moron. For example, a session with a patient like Jenkins might go like this:
JENKINS: ‘I feel that no matter how hard I try I’m always going to fail; that some kind of internal mechanism always acts to screw up what I’m trying to do.’
ANALYST: ‘You feel that some part of you always forces you to fail.’
JENKINS: ‘Yes. For example, that time when I had that date with that nice woman, really attractive – the librarian, you remember – and all I talked about at dinner and all evening was the New York Jets and what a great defensive secondary they have. I knew I should be talking books or asking her questions but I couldn’t stop myself.’
ANALYST: ‘You feel that some part of you consciously ruined the potential relationship with that girl.’
JENKINS: ‘And that job with Wessen, Wessen and Woof. I could have had it. But I took a monthly vacation in Jamaica when I knew they’d be wanting an interview.’
‘What do you make of it all, Doctor? I suppose it’s masochistic.’
‘You think it might be masochistic.’
‘I don’t know. What do you think?’
‘You aren’t certain if it’s masochistic but you do know that you often do things which are self-destructive.’…
The intelligent reader gets the picture. The effect of non-directive therapy is to encourage the patient to speak more and more frankly, to gain total confidence in the non-threatening, totally accepting clod who’s curing him, and eventually to diagnose and resolve his own conflicts, with old thirty-five-dollars-an-hour echoing away through it all behind the couch.
And it works. It works precisely as well as every other tested form of psychotherapy. It works sometimes and fails at others, and its success and failures are identical with other analysts’ successes and failures.