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Like the God whose presence pervades her writing, Muriel Spark moves in mysterious ways. Reality and Dreams is the deceptively forthright title of her 20th novel, a work whose meaning is elusively cryptic. What happens in her economical narrative (153 pages, nine of which are blank) is easy enough to follow—the production of a film, a network of familial ties and sexual liaisons, a baffling disappearance, an attempted murder, a fatal accident—and her characters, a surprisingly large number for so brief a tale, are deftly developed and carefully individualized. But interpreting Reality and Dreams is a daunting challenge, especially for those unfamiliar with her previous books.

The fates of Spark’s characters have usually been determined by forces beyond their knowledge or control. Caroline, the protagonist of The Comforters, is haunted by the tapping of typewriter keys and gradually arrives at the realization that she’s trapped in a novel being composed by an unknown writer. In Spark’s masterpiece, The Girls of Slender Means, the lively young women who reside at London’s May of Teck Club at the end of World War II are unaware of a German bomb buried in the garden that will ultimately explode and kill one of them. The geriatrics of Memento Mori are troubled by an anonymous phone caller with a blunt message: “Remember you must die.” In each instance, Spark, a Catholic convert, implies the existence of a grand design, the plan of a prime mover that defies human perception and comprehension.

Even readers (like me) who are unsympathetic to Spark’s religious convictions can take pleasure in her ingenious plots and terse, lucid prose, filled with epigrammatic shafts of wit and musical repetitions. The palpable, often prideful pleasure she takes in the act of making fiction is a microcosmic intimation of the workings of the ultimate Creator, and it’s hardly accidental that some of her most memorable protagonists—the aspiring writer Fleur Talbot in Loitering With Intent, the movie star Annabel Christopher in The Public Image—are artists.

The inscrutable designs of God and the earthly joys of creativity are fused in the opening line of Reality and Dreams: “He often wondered if we were all characters in one of God’s dreams.” “He” is Tom Richards, a 63-year-old Catholic filmmaker who has broken 12 ribs and a hip after falling from a camera crane during the shooting of his new production, The Hamburger Girl. (“There was no need, no need at all, for you to go up on that crane,” insists his lawyer. “You have to be God.”) Toppled from his lofty perch, Tom is temporarily forced to set aside the powers of art and rely on the ministrations of his family: Claire, his supportive though sexually inexclusive heiress-wife; Cora, the lovely, sweet-tempered, aimless child of his first marriage; and Marigold, the bitter, homely, moralistic spawn of his union with Claire. (“She is nemesis in drag,” he complains. “She is the Last Judgment.”)

While convalescing, Tom suddenly finds himself “redundant,” a condition that afflicts most of the novel’s out-of-work characters, including, among others, his brother, both daughters and their husbands, his nurse’s spouse, and his chauffeur Dave’s brother-in-law. Spark’s emphasis on downsizing has both topical and metaphorical implications. “Redundancy worries me,” Dave admits. “It hangs over us all.” Laid up and given to bouts of reminiscence, Tom feels that “The century is getting old, very old” and misses the companionship and inspiration of deceased fellow artists—W.H. Auden, Tennessee Williams, Mary McCarthy.

Recovered from his accident, Tom resumes production of The Hamburger Girl, inspired by the face of a young woman he once glimpsed at a campsite in France. The French girl is only incidental to the film, whose modestly talented star, “the overwhelming beauty Rose Woodstock,” swiftly becomes Tom’s mistress. Jeanne, an envious actress cast in the marginal title role, grows resentful of her supporting-player status in Tom’s movie and life. Spark cleverly parallels these roles and actresses with Tom’s children. The striking Cora is the apple of his eye, while the ill-favored Marigold, who is writing a sociological study, Redundancy and the Self-Employed, can do nothing to win his approval.

Just as Tom’s movie, retitled Unfinished Business, is released, Marigold mysteriously vanishes. The object of an embarrassing, tabloid-fueled international search, she hides out at the French trailer camp where Tom beheld the hamburger girl. When she reappears, “jealous, fierce, vindictive through and through,” he gender-bendingly casts her in his next film as Cedric, a Celtic soothsayer in 5th-century Britain. The unstable, drug-addled Jeanne is given a tiny, compensatory part in the production and, after her scene is shot and she once again becomes redundant, she returns to the set, ascends a crane and suffers the fate Tom narrowly escaped at the novel’s beginning.

Four paragraphs of summary can only hint at the intricate patterning of Spark’s narrative. One of Reality and Dreams’ triumphs is how much she is able to compress and suggest in so few pages. Yet even after a second careful reading, one closes the novel, as the author surely intends, with more questions than answers. Why does fate smile on Tom, Claire, and Cora, deeply flawed characters blessed with talent, wealth, and beauty, and curse the cheated, hapless Jeanne and Marigold? Is Spark parceling out the destinies she feels her characters deserve, or ironically contrasting worldly rewards with divine justice? “There comes a time,” Marigold sternly observes early in the novel, “when one has to see things sub specie aeternitatis. Which means…under the light of eternity. That is what my parents now have to do. Examine their utility, their service ability, their accountability, their duties and commitments, instead of respectively womanising and manising as they have done in the past, as they continue to do, and as they no doubt mean to do.” But this account-taking never occurs. Spark appears to share the peculiar moral bookkeeping system of two other Catholic converts mentioned in the text—T.S. Eliot, whose “The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock” functions as a motif throughout, and Graham Greene—who perceive earthly inequities as signs of almighty providence.

Although it is Spark’s strongest novel since 1981’s Loitering With Intent and a remarkable performance for a writer approaching her 80th birthday, Reality and Dreams is a chilly, rather forbidding book that lacks the engaging comic energy of her youthful works. Precise in its surface details yet teasingly enigmatic, it appears to be her own memento mori, the twilight musings of a creator preparing to meet the Creator. One can hear what must be echoes of her own voice in Tom’s metaphysical speculations. “Our dreams, yes, are insubstantial; the dreams of God, no. They are real, frighteningly real. They bulge with flesh, they drip with blood. My own dreams, said Tom to himself, are shadows, my arguments—all shadows.”CP