Reality and Dreams

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Muriel Spark’s twentieth novel, REALITY AND DREAMS, is a sprightly tour through the family of film director Tom Richards, his wealthy and philanthropic wife, Claire, his beautiful daughter, Cora, and their unlovely, vengeful daughter Marigold. In part the book satirizes the pretensions of Richards’ films; in part it looks seriously at the problems of lay-offs and unemployment—what the British call “redundancy.”

The novel’s two themes are unified by the force of Marigold’s personality and the uncanny way in which her real life disappearance mirrors the improbably plot in one of Tom Richard’s films. While Tom recovers from a serious fall, Marigold vanishes and becomes the object of an international manhunt. When she is finally found, it turns out she has deliberately hidden herself in poverty and anonymity as part of her research for a book on unemployment.

Intertwined with these themes of dreams/reality and redundancy are everyone’s infidelities, an attempted murder, the common decencies of nurses and taxi drivers, and the arrogance of the very rich. Marigold’s disappearance, in fact, was motivated by her desire to drive her parents to divorce. Ironically, she brings them closer together. However, Tom is too much the film director to learn from such a gesture. His idea is to direct others’ lives as he directs the characters in his films.

Fittingly, this is a cinematic book—with quick cuts between scenes, sparkling dialogue, sharp characterizations, and a sprinkling of dark comedy. The best character is the unlikable Marigold—spiteful to the end but with a firm grasp on reality that eludes most of the others.

Sources for Further Study

Commonweal. CXXIV, May 9, 1997, p. 23.

London Review of Books. XVIII, November 14, 1996, p. 23.

The New York Review of Books. XLIV, July 17, 1997, p. 31.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, May 11, 1997, p. 7.

The Observer. September 15, 1996, p. 17.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, January 27, 1997, p. 76.

The Spectator. CCLXXVII, September 14, 1996, p. 34.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 20, 1996, p. 22.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXXIII, Autumn, 1997, p. 130.

Women’s Review of Books. XIV, July, 1997, p. 38.

Reality and Dreams

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Muriel Spark’s twentieth novel opens as Tom Richards regains consciousness in a hospital where he is recovering from a nearly fatal fall from a crane he was using while directing a film provisionally entitled The Hamburger Girl. The central idea of the film is that a rich man is so struck by a young woman frying hamburgers at a campsite in France that he anonymously bestows a fortune on her and then watches how she copes with her wealth. The plot is pure fantasy, but as the novel progresses readers are shown again and again how fantasy and reality blur and become indistinct, guided, as Tom observes, by “our trade . . . our perceptions and our dreams.”

Films have long been the focus of explorations of the thin line between fantasy, dreams, and reality, but Spark’s approach to the theme is novel and many-faceted. In the first half of the novel, the main vehicle for the idea is Tom Richards himself, who wonders aloud whether “we were all characters in one of God’s dreams” and whose job carries the occupational hazard of confusing film with reality. He has little problem distinguishing real events from imaginary events, but his perception of people seems almost entirely determined by his role as director. While he is filming, for example, he inevitably falls in love and has an affair with his leading lady. When the film is over the affair ends, as if Tom were in love with the role rather than the woman—or, perhaps more accurately, in love with the idea of a star actress. By contrast, the central character in the film, Jeanne (played by an actress also named Jeanne), has no appeal for him because neither the character nor the actress playing her is a star. Similarly, Tom muses frequently on true friendship and inevitably finds that his real friends (or so he believes) are the famous people he has known. Friendship is name- dropping; friends have star quality. In reality, his closest friend in the book is Dave, the taxi driver who drives him aimlessly about London and genuinely listens.

In the second half of the novel, the focus shifts from filmmaking to the mysterious disappearance of Marigold, the unlovely and infuriating product of Tom and Claire’s so- called marriage.

Marigold resents her parents’ marriage because both partners are flagrantly unfaithful. They in turn resent her because she seems no part of either of them: She is homely in appearance, negative toward everything, has no interest in film, and apparently no affection for either parent. So remote is she from her family that she is not missed for several weeks, and when she is, no one has the slightest idea of where she has gone or whether her disappearance is voluntary.

Paradoxically, however, Marigold is the force that keeps Tom and Claire together: “She kept telling her parents that they had nothing in common, and therefore should divorce, not realising that she . . . was mainly the cause of Claire and Tom’s inseparability.” Apparently, her voluntary disappearance is motivated at least in part by her desire to drive them apart—in other words, to force them to realize the unreality of their marriage. Ironically, she succeeds only in bringing them...

(The entire section is 1304 words.)