Luke Rhinehart is the bestselling author of eight novels. He is most famous for The Dice Man, in which a therapist decides to live his life at the throw of the dice. It is at once a biting satire and a challenge to the concept of order. The narrative itself switches between third and first person perspectives and inhabits the sense of the irrational that is at the core of the story. Rhinehart’s career has eschewed the predictable and bravely tackled the wider body of literature beyond the formulaic. A single book by the author contains multiple genres. While the author’s career is far more expansive than the reading of a single book by him will allow, I highly recommend The Dice Man, since it occupies a unique place in fiction. Luke met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about the irrational and the Great American Dream.
Publishing today seems dominated by genre, while your fictions have acted as a seminal counterpoint to that tendency. To what extent do you think shifting genres, and by implication paradigms, is necessary for a novelist?
Of course, getting away from patterns is usually a good thing, so shifting genres, like shifting roles one plays, is often rewarding. However, from the point of view of commercial success as a writer, finding a genre one is successful in and sticking with it, is the way to go. Just as all societies reward people more if they play one consistent role, so too does publishing reward the writer who sticks to one genre. If I had found it natural and enjoyable to continue writing sci-fi adventure stories like LONG VOYAGE BACK, I might have a bit more money in the bank than I do after writing in so many different styles and genres. Or if I had followed up THE DICE MAN with another comic novel about Luke or about dicing, I would have been much more “successful.”
Instead I followed up my long dark comic-philosophical novel THE DICE MAN with a short dramatic historical novel, MATARI. The second book got only praise in reviews but did not sell to the fans of THE DICE MAN. Twenty years later I wrote SEARCH FOR THE DICE MAN, a lighter comic novel about Luke’s son Larry and his dicing, and it has done quite well, although I think it nowheres near as good a novel as MATARI (republished seven years ago as WHITE WIND, BLACK RIDER).
So I don’t think shifting genres is necessary for a novelist, and may even be damaging. Most writers find a style and subject matter and genre that they’re good at and they stick with it. I admire their luck. My own personal preference among my styles is the comic-philosophical fun of THE DICE MAN and WHIM, and the lighter satirical comey of NAKED BEFORE THE WORLD and JESUS INVADES GEORGE. But I’ve happily written five other books that don’t fit into this comic genre.
Looking back on it now, after such a phenomenal success, what do you see as the reasons you took such a divergent path as a novelist?
I don’t have the faintest idea why I do things or have done things. I don’t think humans can ever really find a causal chain to explain human behavior. In THE DICE MAN I don’t have a single sentence about Luke’s father or mother, whether he has siblings, where he went to school–not a thing about his past. And I realize I did this because I don’t think any causal connections I might try to make would have any validity. I majored in, and did graduate work in psychology and it led me to conclude that almost all psychological analysis is illusion. I admire Freud for showing us that unconscious motivations are always at work, but disagree with his theories about how we can discover these unconscious motivations. My “divergent” path as a novelist is the result of . . . . . . . beats me.
Your novel The Book Of Est is a fictional account of Est training and includes mention of Carlos Castaneda’s works. How do you view the training and to what extent do you think it and Castaneda’s work represent attempts to decondition pre-existing social programming?
Well, we’re getting into the heart of things. I like to think that everything I write is an attempt to “decondition pre-existing social programming.” Although I was concerned with the commercial goals of the est program, I nevertheless felt strongly that it was a powerful deconditioning and therefore liberating program. Carlos Castanedas work, at least his two books “A Separate Reality” and “Journal to Ixtlan,” seem to me equally powerful in getting people to question some of their basic attitudes and actions.
I think we can divide books into two classes: the literature of liberation and the literature of litany. The great mass of best sellers have incorporated into them the main values of the society; they work with many people because readers feel comfortable with the assumptions of the author, which are, in fact, the assumptions of the reader and his society. When they finish such a book they feel comfortable.
Other books force readers to question their lives and the values of the main society in which they live. Such books may force readers to question their attitudes towards gays or women or America’s “greatness”, or may question more basic structures like the nature of “selfs”, how we make decisions, or the seriousness of life. Readers who read works of liberation are left uneasy or questioning or excited: other possibilities of living have been opened to them.
There can be great novels in the literature of litany and lousy novels among the literature of liberation, but the two genres should be seen as serving very different purposes.
What are you working on right now?
As I’ve moved from my seventies into my eighties my creative energy has diminished as much as my physical energy. So after three years of doing very little new original work, I am a bit surprised to find that two months ago I began writing a new novel. Ironically, it is based on a character about whom I used to make up stories to my three boys more than fifty years ago.
In style and tone the novel is closest to my novel WHIM. The leading character is a visitor from another universe, who is originally encountered by a wise old geezer rather like Grain-of-Sand in WHIM. FF (the name the geezer’s children give to the beach-ball shaped fish that their dad brings home one day) is all muscle and all brain. FF and two dozen other FFs have arrived on earth not to conquer it, but just to hang out and see what the place is like. NSA becomes suspicious when several of these strange creatures turn up and seem to have miraculous powers of movement and brains and who resist being captured and interrogated. Obviously they are up to no good and may be robots devised by the Chinese or other baddies.
This format of having someone look at our society from outside the world of that society permits me to comment on American civilization in ways I couldn’t do without such an alien being. Whim and Jesus (in my novel JESUS INVADES GEORGE) served a similar function in their stories.
I doubt that I can now write a novel anywhere near as good as WHIM, but I’m enjoying trying. Having low standards is a good way to get writing done; having high standards leads to writing blocks.
How do you view the Great American Dream?
The American dream has evolved over the last three decades into an American nightmare. Success and getting ahead have always been an important part of the American dream but today success and getting ahead are almost exclusively measured in terms of money. Our culture, media and government have all become dominated by powerful corporations and the aims and values of these corporations. By law, corporations are required to put profits for their shareholders over all other considerations, considerations like the welfare of their employees, the effects on the environment of the corporation’s activities, the effects on society in general of their activities. Success is defined exclusively by monetary considerations. And it is these values that the corporate media spreads into our TV sets, computers, schools and households.
Most of the current sicknesses of our society–healthcare, the breakdown of the family, the gross inequalities of wealth and opportunity, the obscene waste, inefficiency, and immorality of our “defense” and spying apparatus–can be attributed directly to this perversion of the American dream to focus exclusively on monetary success. Our health-care system, the most wasteful, corrupt, and inefficient in history, is the most blatant example of a system that in our country, unlike most all other developed nations, is run by businesses for profit and, as a result, is a catastrophic failure. Since the Obamacare continues the reliance on the profit motive in much of its structure it will continue the catastrophe. Think what a different healthcare system might develop if all hospitals were non-profit, with limits on executive compensation, limits on specialists reimbursement, limits on how much a drug might be marked up from its cost. But any limitation on compensation for anyone at anytime goes against the “American dream” of letting everyone get as rich as he or she can.
The American dream used to include concerns for community, the environment, the family, the nation in general. No more. Now it is all about money. And the whole world is suffering as a result.
The Dice Man is your most famous novel. How do you view its success today and to what extent do you think we are governed by the irrational?
The success today of THE DICE MAN is really rather remarkable. It is very rare for a novel to become much more successful 30 years after its initial publication and then hold onto this resurrected success for more than a decade. The book was published in only seven or eight languages back in the early seventies and soon went out of print in all those nations except the UK, Denmark, and Sweden, where it has remained in print now for 43 years. Then, beginning in the early twenty-first century the novel began to be republished by these initial countries and be published for the first time in dozens of other countries . Today the book has been translated into 25 languages and remains in print most everywhere. Late in the first decade of this century the book was selling more copies around the world than at any time ever.
THE DICE MAN has never been a bestseller. It is a cult book, attracting a few very enthusiastic readers, but never appealing to a mass audience. I like it that way.
And as an interesting sidenote, two others of my books which were each published more than 30 years ago have also found an audience as great as upon initial publichation. Three years ago I and two friends republished THE BOOK OF EST as an eBook and paperback. Initially published in 1976 and long out of print, the book has been a very profitable seller now for almost three years. And two years ago Permuted Press republished LONG VOYAGE BACK (first published in1983) as an eBook. For almost six months it was their single most successful eBook. I have no explanation for these late successes of these three of my books.
My guess is that we are pretty much governed totally by the irrational. The human being is so complex, has so many independent variables acting on him or her at any moment, that “reason” will always remain a very minor player in the big league of human behavior. Assuming there is such a thing as reason I feel that even when I behave “rationally,” with purpose and intelligence, I am still governed by the irrational. Sometimes (rather rarely in my case) the multiple irrational forces move me to act in a way that others label rational, and at others in a way that others label foolish or irrational. Although I believe we can never have any certainty about why we do things, I certainly have never found any evidence that human beings are governed by the rational. We may do many clever or reasonable things, but if we think it’s because we are “rational” I think we are sadly mistaken.
Tell us about White Wind, Black Rider.
WHITE WIND, BLACK RIDER was the first novel I published after THE DICE MAN. I wrote it under the influence of Kurosawa’s magnificent film THE SEVEN SAMURAI, Joseph Conrad’s way of telling stories, and the tragedies of Shakespeare. I was consciously writing a tragedy: a story of a good man, Lord Arishi, brought to a tragic end despite his good qualities and the noble qualities of his wife Matari, who has fled his confining court, and the noble qualities of Oboko and Izzi, the two samurai who rescue her in a blizzard and then try to save her from the vengeance of Lord Arishi. Four good people, all acting for good and noble purposes, nevertheless reach a tragic end.
The book was published in the UK in 1975 as MATARI. All of the reviews it received were rave reviews, but the book sold few copies. Although Pocket Book paid me a modest advance to publish a paperback of the book in the U.S., their enthusiasm evaporated and they never published the book. In 1977 Andrew LLoyd Webber’s people approached me about turning it into an opera, but nothing came of it.
I talked earlier about genre and the commercial desirability of sticking with one genre and writing in one of the major genres. WHITE WIND, BLACK RIDER is a tragedy, and although there are sword fights and chases, the book is driven by the relations between the characters, the story of four good people caught in tragic conflict. There is no genre of “tragedies.”
I have published the book myself both as a paperback and an eBook and hope I can draw readers to read it since it is the sort of book that if you read the first 30 pages you’re hooked. Tough, though, to get people to read the first 30 pages.
What do you make of The E Book revolution?
I think the eBook revolution is a great gift to writers. An author can now get his book out into the world for a huge audience for a few hundred dollars. He may not make a lot of money from eBook sales, but his royalty percentage is five to ten times more than what he gets from traditional publishers.
For readers too the eBook is a gift. One can now read and own bestsellers for much less than in print form and buy fine books by lesser-known authors that previously might not even be available–and for half perhaps of a paperback price.
The eBook and print-on-demand publishing make it possible for an author to become his own publisher. He can thus receive royalties of fifty percent or more rather than the ten percent or so from traditional publishers. I recently turned down a publisher’s offer to publish my novels SEARCH FOR THE DICE MAN and WHIM for the first time here in the U.S. I concluded that I wanted to publish the books myself as print-on-demand and eBooks and enjoy the control and high royalty structure that such self-publication permits.
What advice would you give to yourself as a young man?
None. I would give myself no advice to the person I was then. As a young man I was stupid, arrogant, uninformed, unread, immature, egotistical without any justification, and generally a person I blush at when I remember him. Still, I give him no advice. He was what he was and I am what I am. We are both fools, and I see no justification in letting the fool I am today make judgments on the fool I was back then. Much more importantly, I am satisfied with my life and thus would not want the person I was as a young man to be any different than he was since a different him then would mean a different me now.
No regrets. If one embraces the present as I do, one can’t lament anything that happened in the past. One can know one was stupid or cruel or selfish, but wishing one could change things is a waste of effort. It was Nietzsche who in his idea of the eternal recurrence suggested that the healthy man would be happy if he lived the same life over and over through all eternity. I personally might prefer a “spring break” now and then, but his idea is that if we embrace now then we embrace everything that has ever happened. Yes.
Do you think that the self exists?
The ‘self’ is a construct that is more dangerous than useful. I often have a feeling of my ‘self’, and it is pleasant enough. However, always such a feeling separates me from other human beings and from the rest of the universe. I think most human beings’ happiest and most creative moments occur when their feeling of self disappears. Any athlete or writer competing at full throttle loses all sense of self. When he starts imagining his gold trophy or his royalties, he ceases to write.
I have concluded that a human being cannot be separated from the reality that is all around him and in him and is him. There is the cliche question: am I playing with the dog or is the dog playing with me? I think this question could be applied to everything that happens: is the individual ‘doing’ things to the world or is the world doing things to him? One of the most comforting phrases I know comes from a South American shaman: “N’gyam.” It means “nobody home.” There is no central self, there is no soul, there is no “me”. Nobody home. If the Buddha taught anything, he taught work until the self, mara, disappears. He sometimes seems to say that when the little self is gone then the Self arises, but what he means is that when the little self is gone, then all that is left is the All: Buddha’s Self includes the entire universe.
So let’s throw out the concept of self and try to live with a sense not of self, but of flow, emptiness, the interaction of all with all. It’s a nice way to be.
Luke thank you for a great and informative interview.
See the Shop at lukerhinehart.com for all Luke’s books