Dream Sequence is a strange novel: beautifully written and yet oddly weightless. Moments after putting it down, all that remained of it in my mind was a few scattered images: water in a posh swimming pool that “lisped” over the sides, a departing character who left behind “a liveliness in the air through which she had moved and talked”. As you would expect from Adam Foulds, a poet as well as an acclaimed novelist, there are many such beautifully captured moments. But what do they add up to?
Perhaps Foulds would say the book’s lack of heft is intentional, a reflection of its subject matter. This is a novel about loneliness and obsession in contemporary life, set in hotels and airports, sterile apartment blocks, gyms and yoga classes. In this it is something of a departure for Foulds, whose previous work has ranged wide in time, space and form. The Broken Word was a narrative poem about the Mau Mau uprising in 1950s Kenya; The Quickening Maze, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2009, took readers into the Victorian lunatic asylum where John Clare was treated; In The Wolf’s Mouth was set during the Second World War, in Sicily and north Africa.
Here, however, we are well insulated from any of history’s nastier shocks. Kristin lives in a “beautiful house” in Philadelphia, having “redecorated her marriage away” after a generous divorce settlement. But although materially comfortable, she is bereft at the loss of her beloved stepson. When she has a chance encounter with Henry Banks, a British actor who stars in her favourite TV show, obsession takes hold. Convinced that they have a “timeless connection”, she sends love letters through his agent and feverishly plots their next meeting.
Meanwhile, in London, Henry is nursing his own obsessive desire for a part in a film directed by Miguel García, which he sees as his ticket out of low-rent telly into serious cinema. He wants to be famous, so famous that he gets a place in “the zoo… With the other animals, fed and watered and fêted beyond the velvet rope.” In one deliciously cringeworthy scene, Henry follows García to the National Gallery and bullshits his way through a conversation in which the eminent auteur asks him about his favourite picture. We know Henry doesn’t care about art, any more than he cares about charity (“I do charity work. I care,” he says, chatting up a model).
Foulds has some subtle things to say about fame – some of the best scenes in the book revolve around Henry and his parents, who both run him down and prize him for his success. But while the author sets out Henry’s fragile sense of self with great care, he does not afford Kristin the same attention. As a result, her fixation with Henry feels contrived, and she never really rises above the tired lonely-middle-aged-woman stereotype. Initially she seems destined to turn sinister, Fatal Attraction-style (the film is namechecked), but if you are hoping for boiling bunnies you will be disappointed: Kristin’s narrative is supremely bland, consisting mainly of hotel breakfasts and a little light sightseeing.
Meanwhile the plotline around Henry’s pursuit of García fizzles out and his darker side is never fully developed. Just occasionally he seems on the verge of an epiphany but he doesn’t follow it through, always distracted by the next beautiful woman, the next call from Marvel. Neither does Foulds offer readers any satisfaction in terms of comeuppance for this preening egotist; apart from some mild existential anxiety, he emerges pretty much unscathed.
It’s a credit to the strength of Foulds’s prose that despite these frustrations the book is still often a pleasure to read. He is an astute observer of behaviour and speech, conveying Henry’s cynical smarm with particular gusto (“I find feminism very attractive in a woman”). He is acutely tuned in to his characters’ physical experience, and his descriptions of their feelings often prompt that small thrill of recognition: “The itch intensified, fizzing, developing sharp edges that bit into his face.” But although many sentences in this book have wings, Dream Sequence never quite takes flight.
Jonathan Cape, 224pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 30 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Epic fail