A bunch of mad Marigolds

Muriel Spark's dreams are her characters' nightmares. William Boyd reports; Reality and Dreams by Muriel Spark, Constable, pounds 14.95

"He often wondered if we were all characters in one of God's dreams." Thus begins Muriel Spark's shortish, beguiling 20th novel. The "he" doing the wondering is Tom Richards, a sixty-something film director of some renown, who is recovering from a serious accident - a fall from a crane during the shooting of his latest film, The Hamburger Girl. And this is about as profound as Tom gets: most of his waking moments are spent thinking about himself - his future projects, his love affairs and his wife and family.

The mazy and improbable plot centres on Tom's relationship with Marigold, his daughter from his second marriage. Marigold is plain, difficult and demanding and an air of mutual dislike colours their attitudes to each other. Coral, Tom's daughter from his first marriage, by contrast, is beautiful and can do no wrong. Claire, Marigold's mother, airily tolerates Tom's egotism and his regular adultery. The family congregate around Tom after the fall, commiserate and go on their merry ways. Tom's film is put on hold, retitled, then, after he has recuperated, starts up once more with Tom restored at the helm. Tom has an affair with his leading lady, Rose Woodstock, alienates another dysfunctional actress called Jeanne and presides over the several misfortunes of his daughters and sons-in- law.

It's all slightly ditzy and eccentric with a La Ronde style of serial infidelities adding a certain spice. Things get serious, however, when Marigold disappears. The alarm is raised, the media are alerted, a world- wide search is initiated and eventually Marigold is found disguised as a man living with some New Age travellers. It was all, it turns out, a way of tormenting her horrible father. Except that, mysteriously, a taxi driver companion of Tom has been shot at and nearly killed. Was this Marigold's doing?

By way of compensation for his paternal neglect Tom casts manly Marigold as a prescient Celt called Cedric in his latest absurd movie, set in Roman Britain, called Watling Street. Curiously, (but then perhaps not; this is the movie business after all) Tom persists in recasting Rose Woodstock and Jeanne in this new film. Jeanne, now druggy and unhinged, becomes a compliant agent for Marigold's wiles. Marigold, still nurturing murderous thoughts, decides to kill her father by re-enacting the original crane accident, only this time with more fatal efficiency. Jeanne is engaged as saboteur but the plans go tragically awry.

Summaries of Muriel Spark's novels do them a misservice. What delights principally is the tone of voice - so enviably assured, such a distinct signature. In this novel, the point of view is omniscient; we visit whichever character's thoughts suit the Sparkian design. The voice is cool and spare, and in complete disinterested control: "The youth recounted his experience with Marigold but said they had parted shortly afterwards. He did not discount that Marigold was perfectly capable of hiring a hit-man if the plan suited her. The police eventually believed the boy, whose name for the present purpose is irrelevant, and let him go."

The disinterest can shade into ruthlessness. There has always been a nail-paring objectivity about Muriel Spark's authorial style and it provides delectable pleasures throughout her work, Reality and Dreams included. This aloofness can breed a certain air of cynicism or fatalism and gives rise to the darkness that seems to haunt the story. Tom and his brood are lightweights, whose lives and concerns, from one point of view, seem almost nugatory.

Are they mere figments in one of God's dreams? We can detect a God- like presence hovering over the action of the novel but it is that of the author; these characters are characters in one of Muriel Spark's dreams. The dream/reality, art/life theme is further enhanced by the fact that Tom's films all start from his dreams; he makes these films "real", through the wholly unreal medium of film. Just as the plot slips and slides, and the characters' various fates chop and change almost at whim, so too does our sense of the reality of what we are reading shift and blur. There is, in the end, only one person who can make sense of the whole can of worms - the artist.

However, in Reality and Dreams the controlling role of Muriel Spark is a little too overt, I feel. Her unique sensibility functions best when the voice is subjective, the point of view confined or in first person, as in her two wonderful late novels A Far Cry from Kensington and Loitering with Intent. This method localises, and validates, that clear-eyed, unabashedly, brutally honest gaze on the world and its denizens. Omniscient narration has the opposite effect. Perhaps in this elderly century (Spark toys with this notion) the predetermined, the ordered, is fundamentally inimical.

Reflecting on his dream notion Tom concedes that, "Our dreams, yes, are insubstantial; the dreams of God, no. They are real, frighteningly real. They bulge with flesh, they drip with blood." The dreams of Muriel Spark, as we have seen in her exemplary oeuvre, are frighteningly real also, and bulge and drip to great effect. Reality and Dreams, however, is a little muted - a certain shadowiness detracts from the real frisson. But if we have do not have Muriel Spark in her full symphonic majesty, we can still relish the real pleasures of this work on a smaller scale - a nocturne, say, a suite, a variation on certain themes - as we wait for the major work to resume.

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