Adam Foulds’s fourth novel, Dream Sequence, is an exquisitely concocted, riveting account of artistic ambition and unrequited love verging on obsession. In previous novels he has been interested in exploring the limits of perception and knowledge. Here he examines, with beautiful, forensic attention, the minds of a young, thrusting English actor, Henry Banks (a mix of Dan Stevens and Henry Cavill), and Kristin, an American divorcée with a stalkerish crush on him from the other side of the world. She writes letters, decorated with butterflies: ‘He was the key signature in which the music of her life was played.’
This is a novel about celebrity and its consequences, with Henry as, in his own words, a ‘permeating light’. Ranged about him, like orbiting planets, are various others, each exhibiting complex layers of desire. It’s not the first time Foulds has written about such things; his Booker shortlisted novel, The Quickening Maze, was in some part driven by the aura of fame which blazed around the poets Tennyson and Clare.
In Dream Sequence, the seekers of fame are manifold. Henry has been playing the lead in a safe, Sunday night Downton-esque drama called The Grange, and now, bored with his ‘reassuring’ handsomeness, desires cinematic credibility. Henry’s father, a bumbling am-dram type, has been trying for years to put on his musical about the Brownings (wish I could see that one); his mother quietly simmers, having given up a promising singing career to look after her children. And of course Kristin believes in her destiny as Henry’s lover, and wills herself to achieve her end. While she daydreams in California amid yoga lessons, setting up Google alerts for the tiniest mention of Henry’s name, her target starves himself and exercises manically in order to prepare for a role in a major production with a notorious director of ‘difficult’ films.
Foulds introduces a note of gentle satire, particularly in the overblown way that film people talk about their own essentially vainglorious projects, and in their convoluted complicity with regimes such as Qatar. There is a lovely sequence at an Arab film festival, where everybody talks about the terrible conditions of the labourers, while doing drugs that might get them executed. There are several well-fashioned set pieces: for example, when Henry, unknowingly mimicking the behaviour of his own stalker, follows a film director into the National Gallery in order to make it seem like an accidental meeting; or when he ends up having to do a yoga lesson with ‘members of the public’.
Yet, despite Henry’s many obvious flaws, Foulds frames him carefully, so that his story becomes urgent: he isn’t an empty-headed luvvie but someone engaged in that most modernist mission — the quest for himself. There’s an oddity about the timings of the plot — a letter delivered much later than I thought it had been — which lends the whole a dreamy sheen. Are we all dreaming? And what happens when we wake?
Foulds is proving himself to be a versatile writer of intelligence and charm. Dream Sequence is a relatively slim affair; one finishes the book wishing the dream were longer.