It's life, Muriel, but not as we know it

REALITY AND DREAMS by Muriel Spark Constable pounds 14.95
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The Independent Culture
Muriel Spark may be a revered fixture of post-war British fiction, and she may have settled near Arezzo, but that doesn't mean she is any less informed of the Zeitgeist. Stop any social historian and he'll tell you that the Nineties will go down as the age of job insecurity; accordingly, Spark has written a fable of redundancy. Nor would you expect her to set her tale in a Yorkshire mining village or on a negative-equity estate in Basildon; the characters in Reality and Dreams, her first novel for eight years, are film-makers, electronics executives and Channel Four producers.

Tom, an internationally successful film-director, has fallen from the crane on the set of his latest. He is middle-aged, ridiculously rich, on his second marriage and, when in England, lives in a house with an internal telephone system, a PA, a cook and, now that he's temporarily disabled, a masseur and pretty, mauve-clad nurses. His "millionaire" wife is gorgeous, blonde, wears "skintight blue jeans" and "two strings of pearls", is soothingly immune to his regular tantrums and anyway has her lovers round to play. Tom has affairs with actresses and is a self-confessed womaniser. It's a happy marriage.

Tom has a dazzlingly beautiful daughter, Cora, from his first marriage and an "unlovely, graceless" one, Marigold, from his second. He adores Cora and despises Marigold. When the latter disappears Tom suddenly decides - as police and Interpol comb the world for her - that she might be rather interesting after all, rather "photogenic", and would do very nicely in one of his films. He doesn't fret, goes to his study and starts writing a vehicle for her talents.

Spark's take on all this is as feisty, comic and likeably controlled as you would expect. But the Seventies' mini-series setting? Those glossy non-characters? Panic had set in by the time I was halfway through the book.

Tom says of himself: "It's not ordinary life. But let me tell you that for people in the film business, yes, it is life. Nothing with us is consistent." It's acceptable, of course, for Tom to think he's glamorously inconsistent - that's the point. But, little ironies aside, I had a disturbing feeling that I too was supposed to find all this film stuff glamorous and beguiling. And how was I meant to feel about this ageing Casanova who rants about Eliot and Proust and chucks water in his nurse's face? It was hard to see it as a new or genuinely interesting angle on the menopausal male.

But Spark is very funny. Her prose oozes poise, is peppered with apparent, seductive irony. The trouble is, everyone here is brash, self-seeking and dislikeable: Tom is incredibly rude. It's always stylish and entertaining, but there's no scope for moral dilemma, you don't have to take sides, you aren't asked to untangle any web of motivation. Everything here is as straightforward and spelt-out as the hammy films Tom makes.

By the time I got to the end of the book, I could see that it was intended as a neat fable about redundancy. At least two people are rendered jobless during the course of the plot, redundancy is talked about an awful lot, Marigold is researching a book about its sexual implications when she disappears and Tom - laid-up, off work, sexually disempowered - has redundant stamped all over him.

But I don't think it works. The people who lose their jobs are rich. They appear to enjoy private incomes or live in picturesque cottages and go travelling whenever they fancy. The only attempt at a normal, working- class character is Tom's regular cab-driver, Dave, whose brother-in-law is out of work. Dave says: "Redundancy worries me; it hangs over us all", but somehow you shrug it off because Dave has his apophthegms but no credible existence beyond that of Tom's feed-man.

Dave says Tom should write his memoirs, but of course he shouldn't. Tom's memoirs would be deadly dull. We know that, maybe even Tom knows that deep down, but does Spark think Tom is more interesting than he really is? He's a character in a TV movie - when they make the film of the book he'll be played by Burt Reynolds - an amusing short-story vignette, but not a complex central character for a novel. The dilemmas and contradictions implied in him are never fleshed out. Is this a good short story that has had the temerity and exuberance to explode its way into a full-blown novel? I was left with an uncomfortable sense that the author didn't really mean any of it, that she was having a good laugh - that she might burst in at any moment and say, Ha! Gotcha.