If you’ve ever had misgivings about yoga, Adam Foulds’s new novel will make them far worse. Dream Sequence features two memorable yoga classes: one at the beginning of the book, in suburban Philadelphia, where Kristen, a lonely but chipper divorcee, performs a series of invigorating asanas; and another towards the end, in London, attended by the vain English actor Henry Banks, who is the focus of Kristen’s obsession, her “twin soul” – though he doesn’t yet know it.
“Think of yourself as a germinating seed about to get up and walk into your future,” the American instructor tells her yoga bunnies, inadvertently fuelling Kristen’s delusion. Across the Atlantic, Henry experiences a “persistent anxiety-inducing tremor” during a meditation session as his mind runs over various professional and sexual insecurities – not least his failure to bed a co-star. These self-realisations prove anything but helpful for the protagonists of this mordantly clever story about fame, fantasy and narcissism.
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.
But for Henry, the sumptuousness of the show becomes a problem. He worries that his smooth TV looks lack “the strangeness and astringency that made for cinema” so crash diets for the lead role in The Beauty Part, a film about an emaciated ex-soldier directed by obese Spanish auteur Miguel Garcia. Desperate to impress Garcia, he stalks him around the National Gallery, only to be told he’ll have to starve himself for the role: “He must be very thin, like a spectre.”
At a film festival in Doha, a wry American model, Virginia (one of many excellent minor characters), teaches Henry how to swallow tissues in order to feel fuller. An actor friend asks if he’s preparing to play a pencil. Meanwhile, his co-star Laura, newly woke in the #MeToo era, is more concerned about the Bangladeshi and Nepalese labourers building the Qataris’ skyscrapers. Henry pretends to sympathise but he’s secretly delighted by the bling-bling lifestyle.
He longs for the next-level stardom: “magazine covers and interviews and product campaigns and fans quoting dialogue and internet parodies and academic analysis and midnight screenings”. But he knows it’s dependent on “a casino of chances”, AKA luck – a word his quietly embittered mother uses whenever she’s talking about his career. Their vexing phone conversations are invariably interrupted by Henry’s amateur playwright father, author of a twee musical about Robert Browning that Henry would rather didn’t exist.
Kristen, despairing of her idol ever answering her fan mail, flies to London where she watches Henry play Hamlet at the Barbican and feels “the curved air of the transparency between them, the space from her seat to the stage. She could get up and walk to him. She could call out and he would hear her.”
We are waiting for events to slide towards disaster and we’re not disappointed; but this is not a psychological thriller and Henry and Kristen’s encounter doesn’t play out in the way we expected. The climax isn’t entirely plausible, partly because the author applies the brakes too forcefully, but the clues as to how Kristen’s obsession will end are there in that first yoga scene. Dream Sequence is a novel with many subtle echoes and recurring images – butterflies, a drowning dog, a plastic Spider-Man figure – that all have a symbolic value. It doesn’t have the poetic intensity of The Quickening Maze, Foulds’s Booker-shortlisted study of the poet John Clare; in tone, it has more in common with his witty debut, The Truth About These Strange Times. There’s an appealing satirical edge to Foulds’s portraits, though he writes with a psychological precision and a deep knowledge of the acting world. We are invested in Henry and Kristen’s struggles but we also see how absurd they are sub specie aeternitatis.
When we peer into Kristen’s mind there’s a softening of focus, a sweet fuzziness of perception. But Henry admits he’s also prone to superstition. “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 them first, to help them learn.”
Slice him where you like, Foulds is a very fine writer. Dream Sequence might be a minor entertainment but it fizzes with wit – a book you can read in one enjoyable gulp.