Dream Sequence notices everything, from the taste of tinned tuna – “flakes and spiral chunks that were smooth in his mouth. Flavour of salt and metal and flesh” – to the blast of a “howling” hand dryer, from “the blatting of an amplified voice” to a head of ageing hair, “faded like the fabric of a chair that had caught the sun”. Description is intimate and visceral, scratching at the glossy surface of the lives of the characters and underpinning the “vacuum” they move through, together but apart.
The premise is deliciously funny. Handsome Henry is an Oxbridge-educated television actor from a family of frustrated artistes (Foulds has stealthily borrowed from the biographies of Benedict Cumberbatch and Dan Stevens here). He has spent six seasons in The Grange, a glossy Downton Abbey-like mini-series beloved of American housewives. Kristen has watched so many episodes that she has “the quick chirping British voices of The Grange talking in her head”. She even decorates her home in the colour palette of the servants’ quarters.
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.
...a strange novel: beautifully written and yet oddly weightless... 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?... 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 acutely tuned in to his characters’ physical experience, and his descriptions of their feelings often prompt that small thrill of recognition... But although many sentences in this book have wings, Dream Sequence never quite takes flight.
Adam Foulds’s fourth novel, Dream Sequence, is an exquisitely concocted, riveting account of artistic ambition and unrequited love verging on obsession...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. ... 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.
There’s deep psychology on every page – Henry is a textured portrait of a human being hollowed out by vanity and ambition, living in the dead eye at the centre of the celebrity vortex; but Foulds renders him vulnerable and lost and existentially panicked and therefore understandable. Meanwhile, Kristin’s mind is remote from reality in the opposite way; she lives enshrouded and dazed in the hex that celebrity projects.
But it’s the details of the writing itself – the precision of the word selection combined with the precision of the observation – that make for such enjoyable reading. Henry’s taxi pauses at traffic lights, for example, so that he might notice a man eating an apple by “delicately picking with his teeth at the remaining edible flesh by the core”... Yet despite all these satisfying readerly pleasures, I couldn’t help but notice that the book felt out of date as a stalking novel. No Instagram, no Twitter, no Celebrity Face Search? A fan composing actual letters to agents? It doesn’t matter in terms of the skill of the writing, but Dream Sequence feels a little late 1990s.
Dream Sequence, incisively well-written and alluringly readable is, among other things, a really good London novel. Adam Foulds — whose previous work includes The Quickening Maze, about the poet John Clare’s incarceration in an Epping Forest asylum in the 1840s, and In the Wolf’s Mouth, set in North Africa and Sicily during the Second World War — is acutely sensitive to shifting environments, conveying them brilliantly with few words. This prose is truly poetic, being concise, not impasto.
“Oh my God, is this like a full-on stalker situation?” Henry’s girlfriend asks as the story nears its climax. If only it were, you feel, for by this time the novel has proved sadly devoid of tension or drama. Meagrely characterised, its central figures are so lacking in substance that the story is about as gripping as an empty glove. Kristin remains a virtual cipher. Henry is never filled out much beyond the cliché of the narcissistic actor.
True to its title and just like The Great Gatsby, this novel billows around you like a queasy dream, its grand scenery and awful characters combining to take us out of the real world and into another, oddly shimmering version of it. Foulds describes just how lovely rich people’s lovely things are. And why not? It’s a nice place to be and is timed just right for a beach-read for those who, like Henry, can ditch the bleak UK winter and skip off to the sun — or as a brief, bright escape for those of us who can’t.
Henry understands that mental instability lies just benea th the surface: “If fame had taught him anything it was that everybody was mad in that way, in the dark privacy of their thoughts. Fame pulled it out of them like magnets, the weird personal connections, the destinies, the universe wanting things for them, or needing them to go through things first, to help them learn.” Kristin’s divorce from Ron has robbed her of the tender, innocent love of her stepson, Lionel, and she is sad, obsessed, lonely. Many people are, but Kristin’s impulse to act out her delusions remains just beyond the realms of comprehension — a minor weakness in an otherwise lucid, richly detailed and tense novel.