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Love And Death At The Toss Of A Die

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
October 22, 2012

Sheila Heti is the author of How Should a Person Be?

My father gave me The Dice Man when I was 13 years old. It’s a novel narrated in the voice of Luke Rhinehart, a jaded psychoanalyst, whose home and professional life have become so boring that he decides, one night, to rule his life by the whim of a die. If it turns up a one, he thinks, he’ll sleep with his wife’s best friend, Arlene.

The book is overtly a stab at the psychoanalytic industry, but is also, I think now, a look at the mind of a gambler and an addict. Luke Rhinehart is both of these things — he’s also impulsive, anti-social, and nonconformist. Throw in the randomness of the die, and you get a novel saturated with violence and sex. I asked my father a few months ago, “Why would you give that book to a 13-year-old? Wasn’t I a little young?”

“But it was so interesting!” he said.

It was. And for me, it felt like everything. That summer, I foisted my copy onto my best friend, Leah. She read its 300 pages as swiftly as I had done. Then we both began living by the die: “If it turns up even, we’ll bum a cigarette from the next guy we see…”

I knew what I really wanted the die for; like it had helped Luke Rhinehart pursue Arlene, I hoped the die would maneuver me closer to the object of my desire: “If it’s a one, I will leave Leah’s bed when she’s asleep and sneak into her brother Jordan’s…”

So I had Jordan read the book, and soon he was living by the die. This was deeply maddening to Leah (I pretended to be irritated, too, when he would show up at dinner and place down beside his plate a red die with white dots; copy-cat!), but secretly I was thrilled. Now we all were speaking the same language. Life could begin.

That summer, we played games we otherwise wouldn’t have devised, games we took really seriously, that involved stripping and kissing and more, over by the tennis courts near Leah’s house, a die spinning in the center of the circle where we sat: Leah, her brother, another friend and I. It was one of the most thrilling periods of my life — the dawning of our adolescent sexuality — and something of that book lodged itself deep within me. I think I never lost the sense that a life lived spontaneously, as if by chance, would always be a fuller, more exciting and truer life, than one led by the earnest evaluation of options.

You don’t need a die to gamble. You can gamble by making impulsive decisions, you can gamble with your reputation, by mindlessly spending, or promising impossible things on a whim; it can be an entire way of being. In the book, Luke Rhinehart finds himself in ever more compromising and humiliating scenarios, usually in the presence of those he respects and loves the most, like his colleagues and family. I have, too. Most of us have.

Luke Rhinehart could not be considered an acceptable model for any young person setting out in life. Yet rereading the book, I see the enormous effects it’s had on me — good and bad. At age 13, The Dice Man was the perfect tool — the most complicit tool imaginable — behind which I could hide my desires, and eagerly enter the world of adults.

PG-13 is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman with production assistance from Annalisa Quinn. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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