"Reality and Dreams," by Muriel Spark. Houghton Mifflin. 160 pages. $22.

Muriel Spark's comic novel starts well. A man wakes up in a hospital post-op and drifts in and out of dopey sleep while time expands and contracts, and each day a new nurse, different face, sometimes different color, comes in to take his pulse.

"So does our trade direct our perceptions and our dream, he thought: Tom was a film director. Cut into the scene of the morning with the scene of the evening. The same nurse, but was it the same?"

Tom Richards has fallen off a crane while directing a movie whose name ("The Hamburger Girl," "I'll Kill You If You Die," "The Lunatic Fringe," "The Lump Sum," "Unfinished Business") keeps changing. Half his ribs are broken and his hip is fractured. He has a long and painful convalescence in this, Spark's 19th novel and 32nd book, first in the hospital, then at his country house in Wimbledon.

It's during the convalescence that Tom's sex, love, family and work life - already hot - overheat, and the pot boils over in pratfalls, dramas, contretemps and even crimes more preposterous than in the silliest feature film.

For example: Still ailing, Tom wheels himself back to the set of "Hamburger Girl," and resumes an affair with his leading lady, which enrages the actress playing the burger girl. Meanwhile, Tom's rich and beautiful wife, Claire, has moved her lover into the house she shares with Tom; her daughter, Cora, is sleeping with in-laws, and his daughter, Marigold, a perfect pill, has decided to sabotage her father's career by disappearing into thin air.

Everyone in this book is sexy, affable, game and smooth except for Marigold.

But Marigold is needed. Without Marigold - the homely, sourball killjoy - this story would be inert. She is the only source of unrest in this guiltfree swingers' paradise.

So, after trying to spoil everyone's fun just by being there, Marigold takes more radical steps and disappears. She is presumed dead and her filmmaker dad is the prime suspect. To lure his daughter out of hiding (and save his own skin), Tom Richards dreams up an epic film set in 5th century Roman Britain, and puts out the word that he's looking for a leading man. His first choice for the meaty role of Cedric, sinewy Celtic slave: Marigold.

Marigold surfaces and gives a boffo on-screen performance. She's not as homely as they thought: she has a certain magnetism. She makes a good man. The rescue operation is complete. But the novel isn't, until Spark stages a second crane accident to settle the hash of the disgruntled hamburger girl.

This is a short book, an easy (and not unpleasant) hour and a half read, but Spark seems interested only in the first few pages, where she portrays Tom Richards, laid up and helpless. She feels for his incapacity, his boredom, his longings, his sudden expulsion from movieland. But returning him to that life, fully intact, seems rather to have bored Spark.

Was the title the problem? Instead of "Reality and Dreams," with its promise of thoughtful riffs on life and the movies, the novel should have been called "I'll Kill You If You Die." Then Spark could have tackled something like, what happens when a dapper successful dad spawns a miserable frumpy child - and written "Washington Square" instead.

Jean McGarry, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars, has written four volumes of fiction. Her fifth novel, "Gallagher's Travels," will be published this spring.

Pub Date: 4/27/97

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