Review: Dream Sequence by Adam Foulds – 'his focus is not friendship, but obsession'
An English actor and his American super-fan are the latest of Foulds's characters to be emotionally buffeted and battered
There is a moment in Adam Foulds’s 2007 novel, The Truth About These Strange Times, when the English author tells his reader that “the world abrades your finesse away”. Since then, all of Foulds’s diverse work has featured individuals who are in some way worn down or roughed up by destructive forces.
That first book tracked the unlikely alliance and wayward progress of two outsiders – an unemployable misfit and a 10-year-old child prodigy – as they flee the combined pressures of an uncaring society and an overweening family. Foulds’s masterly follow-up, The Quickening Maze, a novel that was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, dealt with madness, melancholy and the “unbosoming of anxieties” in a 19th-century lunatic asylum. In his 2014 book In the Wolf’s Mouth, two soldiers found themselves up against it during the bungled liberation of Italy at the end of the Second World War – not so much abraded by the ways of the world as eroded by them.
An English actor and his American super-fan are Foulds’s latest characters to be emotionally buffeted and battered; the latest to lose their innocence and their stability. Dream Sequence is a return to the modern Britain of Foulds’s first novel. This time, however, his focus is not friendship, but obsession: how far you go to pursue your dream, and what to do when that dream turns into a nightmare.
His male lead is Henry Banks, a young, talented, ambitious, but thoroughly self-absorbed character. Desperate to move on from TV show The Grange after a six-year run, without resorting to doing “the Hollywood Englishman, rom-com thing”, Banks seizes the opportunity to impress heavyweight Spanish film director Miguel Garcia. Banks is nervous enough before and during his London audition, but his mood worsens afterwards when he receives an unsettling letter from a deranged admirer, “full of private madness and incantation and belonging to a live person who is out there right now”.
Specifically, out there in a big, empty Philadelphia house. Here, recently divorced Kristin writes letters by hand to Banks and watches him in action on TV. Two years ago, she bumped into the actor at an airport. Since then, she has convinced herself it was a fateful encounter; that they are destined to be together. Banks, for her, is “everywhere and nowhere, shaping everything”. But soon, she decides he is too far away, and so plans a trip to London in a feverish bid to turn her single-minded infatuation into mutually reciprocated love.
Kristin isn’t the only obsessive in the book. Banks stalks Garcia and changes his persona to impress him. Once he lands the breakthrough part, he prepares for it by embarking on a gruelling weight-loss regimen. During a promotional trip to Doha, he soaks up the opulence, admires the cityscape (“Like home but a thousand times stranger”) and is bowled over by Virginia, an American model, but he later flies into a panic about getting home in time for film rehearsals.
As the narrative unfolds and Kristin unravels, it becomes clear that both characters will meet. The novel’s carefully accreted tension stems from the promise of imminent disaster and an unguessable outcome. Will opposites attract or will two worlds collide? Will each character blow their big chance: Banks to take his career to a new level, Kristin to settle down with the love of her life?
As Foulds builds to an excruciating crescendo, he captivates us with one sharp scene after another. Kristin zeroes in on Banks by prowling around his agency and his apartment and ingratiating herself with his father. Banks treads the boards, spends quality time with Virginia, and celebrates theatrical success with his parents – unaware that Kristin is waiting in the wings, about to make her grand entrance.
Not all is perfect, however. The book suffers from a key structural defect. Kristin opens the proceedings but sticks around for only 12 pages. When Kristin finally reappears on page 133, it is almost as an afterthought. It leaves Foulds having to construct her all over again, and justify her belated presence in what has turned out to be Banks’s story.
But, once she is back in place, she becomes both an integral plot component and a fascinating character. Instead of fobbing his reader off with a production-line bunny boiler, Foulds gives us a more nuanced creation, a lonely, deluded soul who doesn’t so much trigger shock as arouse sympathy.
Banks is equally compelling, his flaws rendering him more than just a pretty face. He screens his mother’s calls and regards his father’s humble appeals for help as “exorbitant favours”. He also comes to prioritise commercial success over artistic integrity.
Dream Sequence’s other main strength is its entrancing language. Foulds is an award-winning poet (his remarkable 2008 narrative poem The Broken Word, about the Mau Mau Uprising, has the power to stun and to move) and once again he ensures there is poetry in his prose. Virginia’s beautiful body is “scoured by other people’s attention”; Henry’s handsome face is “finished and authoritative”; Kristin descends into “the racketing yellow violence of the underground trains”.
Lyricism abounds throughout this deftly handled cautionary tale – one which warns that meeting our heroes can be dangerous and dreams can be frighteningly real.
Dream Sequence by Adam Foulds is out now, published by Penguin
Updated: February 15, 2019 09:41 AM