Muriel Spark on human pointlessness.

Reality and Dreams

By Muriel Spark

Houghton Mifflin; 160 pages; $22

The appearance of a new Muriel Spark novel is like a birth in one of those large artistic families that run to genius and oddness: the Brontës, the Redgraves, the Beach Boys, the Jackson brood. Reality and Dreams shares its build and many of its features and gestures with such brilliant blood relations as Memento Mori, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and A Far Cry from Kensington, Spark’s flawless explorations of mortality, hero worship, and literary politics, respectively.

Of course, not every member of a distinguished family is equally appealing. Branwell Brontë drank and raved. Similarly, Reality and Dreams is not Spark’s most pleasant novel. Its hero, Tom Richards, is a filmmaker with a passion for controlling things. He has trouble distinguishing between his fictions and his real life, doing his best to manipulate both, and he’s hard to warm to.

Spark brings complicated families to mind partly because of the familial structure she gives her novels. She favors a huge cast bound sometimes by blood and marriage, sometimes by more casual connections, such as geography or religious beliefs. As in a real family, some characters struggle for ascendance, while one or two Prospero figures believe they can yank the others around. So Tom Richards is something of a Spark type. Also as in real life, these Prosperos are not always right about how much they can control. When Reality and Dreams opens, Tom has just fallen from a high place–a crane where he liked to sit and “shout orders through the amplifier and like God watch the team down there group and re-group as bidden. Especially those two top stars and the upstart minor stars, with far too much money, thinking they could direct the film better themselves.”

Confined to his bed with a broken hip and 12 broken ribs, Tom frets about his interrupted movie and receives visits from his family. There’s his wife, Claire, wealthy and generous; his daughter by Claire, self-righteous Marigold, whom he calls “an unfrocked priest of a woman”; his beautiful daughter by his first marriage, Cora; and various spouses and lovers, past, present, and future, his and theirs.

The characters squabble like siblings, jealous regardless of whether they have cause to be. Perhaps rightly, few of them believe there’s enough money, security, fame, power, and love to go around. The menace of deprivation haunts the book like a bourgeois anxiety dream. Character after character, although well-connected, well-educated, and well-to-do, is laid off work, or “made redundant.” The characters respond tellingly, either gloating, helping, or scheming. When Cora’s husband, Johnny, gets the ax, Tom ruminates, “I am glad … that Johnny has been made redundant. I am glad with the gladness of the lover of truth: the man has always been superfluous.” Later, Johnny comes to see him: “Tom said, ‘If you think I am a stone that you shouldn’t leave unturned, you are wasting your time.’ “

R eality and Dreams has a typical Spark plot, artificial and suspenseful as a mystery thriller, full of clues and malice, yet elusively allegorical. Its apparent center is Marigold’s mysterious disappearance on Page 85, almost exactly halfway through the book, after Tom has recovered from his fall and finished his movie. Is Marigold dead, or just trying to get attention? Leave it to a Spark character to try to seize center stage by vanishing. Marigold’s parents, who never noticed her much except to deplore her, are forced to think about her, and her father discovers that she has “[s]triking looks, not good-looking in fact plain ugly. But striking.”

But in Spark’s world, appearances (and disappearances) are deceiving. Sometimes what seems to be central is really peripheral, and a throwaway plot point turns out to be the story’s symbolic heart. As the book opens, Tom is working on a movie about a rich man who sees a girl flipping burgers at a campsite and decides to leave her a vast fortune. It’s based on his own experience, a moment when he caught sight of such a girl and had an impulse to give her all his money (or rather, all his wife’s money, since the family money actually belongs to Claire). The focus of his movie, however, winds up being not the hamburger girl, but the benefactor’s girlfriend, who is played by Rose, a star with huge box-office draw.

When Tom begins an affair with Rose, the actress who plays the hamburger girl becomes jealous. “I was deliberately photographed in half-profile all the time, so I wouldn’t be recognised. The light always, always, blotted me half out,” she complains to Claire.

“You were meant to be half blotted out,” Claire tells her.

Memento Mori was about death; Reality and Dreams is about a sort of half death: being made redundant, being half blotted out. Spark was in her prime when she wrote Memento Mori. As she draws closer to mortality (may it be many novels away!), she has taken up the question from the perspective of the artist. Is it possible, she asks, to become famous while disappearing? What happens to an artist whose characters refuse to cooperate? Just who is in charge, anyway? And (as Tom wonders in the book’s opening line) are we all characters in one of God’s dreams?

We know, of course, whose dreams Tom is a character in. By putting the question in his mouth, Spark is implicitly comparing herself to God. Similarly, her title teases her readers, inviting us to draw parallels between her personal history and the story she tells in the novel, though she declines to supply the necessary details about her life. (Curriculum Vitae, the memoir she published a few years ago, politely fends off the curious.) Such self-referential questions can be pointless and irritating, and books that dwell on them generally belong in a category that one friend of mine calls “art about art supplies.” Unfortunately, Reality and Dreams doesn’t transcend this category. The main characters are too mean to care about, and it’s painful to watch everyone pick on Marigold–even her author–whether or not she deserves it. Still, for barbed wisdom, surprises, and technique, there’s no one like Spark. If she wants to write a sketch of her pencil box, I for one will gladly read it.