What is fiction to do with a world in which intimate human connection is increasingly mediated – or even replaced – by images on screens? Dream Sequence, the fourth novel by Adam Foulds, is the story of a relationship whose two parties are almost perfect strangers to one another. Almost, but not quite: Henry, a handsome British actor, and Kristin, a well-off American divorcee, once crossed paths, and flirted, in an airport shopping centre. For Henry this briefest of encounters was soon forgotten, but Kristin, reeling from the breakdown of her marriage and prone to magical thinking, quickly came to view it as a turning point in her life, imagining that the pair were destined to be together. Henry craves artistic credibility as an actor, but it’s Kristin who emerges as the real artist of the two, weaving emotional drama out of thin air and finding meaning in random events with the skill of a masterful writer. As Henry spends his time in London hoping to land a career-defining role in the latest film by a legendary Spanish director, Kristin is at home in Philadelphia, obsessively watching Henry’s television appearances and plotting their reunion.
Henry and Kristin are both, in their different ways, people for whom others don’t exist; one of the great pleasures of this novel is the way Foulds inhabits his characters’ solipsism with imaginative sympathy. Kristin’s inner monologue, its spaced-out lyricism inflected with the language of ‘mindfulness’ and ‘synchronicity’, is expertly rendered. Her brush with Henry leaves her ecstatic: ‘A pure white circle of truth, a pure heat, now sat in the centre of her heart and flowed out, containing everything … Fate. Seemingly so fragile but it rules like iron because it is meant to be.’ Henry’s egoism is of a more restless and self-lacerating kind. Spending days on end alone at home, starving himself thin for the camera and waiting for a call from his agent, he is eaten up by intimations of failure and doom: ‘News of a film, trailers for TV shows, interviews with actors could all hurt him with an envy that felt like cramp, like impotent anger at injustice. He knew that it was wrong, that seeing another photograph of Benedict Cumberbatch or Tom Hiddleston made no difference to anything, but he was helpless.’
The risk in writing a novel about the sorrows of fame is that the author tells us things we think we already know: that the adulation of a million strangers is no substitute for real fellowship, that narcissists drown in their own reflections, and so on. But rather than pass judgement on his characters, Foulds immerses himself in the trance of their points of view, filtering their perceptions through the lens of his gorgeous prose. Foulds’s style is the instrument of a virtuoso, at once rich, resonant and startlingly precise. Take, for instance, his way with people’s faces. Appropriately for a book so concerned with human surfaces and display, Dream Sequence is unusually alert to people’s looks and the effects they produce. Henry’s ‘finished and authoritative’ features ‘could be a shock, as much for him as for others who sometimes also had to process their recognition of him, their sensation of an untethered and inexplicable intimacy’. A journalist’s ‘face of heavy stippled flesh looked cured in cigarette smoke’. A yoga teacher’s bland smile is ‘a kind of facial hold music’. Even Henry’s inattentiveness to the unfamous people he passes in the street is rendered with careful attention: from a cab window he sees ‘London’s surplus of faces, of human versions, every permutation, all preoccupied, unconscious, milling towards something’. (Notice here how ‘milling about’ is touched up into a deft paradox, capturing how a crowd can seem aimless and purposeful at the same time.)
Henry is so good-looking that he occasionally thinks ‘it would be nice, warm and relaxed and human, to be a little ugly, to have a face that showed personality in pouches under the eyes or a large, soft mouth, the face of a character actor, expressing suffering and humour’. Might a similar impulse have drawn Foulds, the author of effortlessly beautiful prose, towards these unprepossessing characters, with their lonely obsessions and seedy delusions? Dream Sequence is not a warm or consoling book. A lesser writer might have been content to reap from its subject the low-hanging fruit of edification or satire. But Foulds, in sentence after perfect sentence, has created something altogether more strange: an acid, amoral tale of hunger and haunting.