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Book Reviews Adam Foulds’ Dream Sequence reminds readers to value what you have now

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  • Title: Dream Sequence
  • Author: Adam Foulds
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: Biblioasis
  • Pages: 182

We all read books for different reasons. I’m reminded of a cartoon by Grant Snider (based on Rudine Sims Bishop’s work) of the many metaphorical uses of books: mirrors, windows, anchors, springboards, escape hatches and flying carpets, among other things.

Still, even the most voracious readers among us, perhaps especially adult readers, likely incline toward some uses over others. I tend not to look to a book for life advice – I find the act of reading itself solace enough for life’s small- to medium-sized upsets. I’ll take it when it’s offered, though. I was reminded of this after reading Adam Foulds’s new novel, Dream Sequence, a book that addresses a social problem that, on consideration, I think is far more prevalent than is recognized.

On its surface, Dream Sequence is about two people: Henry and Kristin. Henry is the former star of a Sunday-night British historical TV drama called The Grange. After the show’s finale airs, Henry’s life in London revolves around making his next big break into movies. No, not movies: cinema. Kristin, recently divorced and installed through alimony payments in suburban Philadelphia, has long days to fill, which she does with The Grange. It’s Kristin we meet first at the novel’s outset. Her sister has just left Kristin’s home after suggesting Kristin pick up some new hobbies.

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At first I thought Dream Sequence a competent but relatively light read. Foulds – whose accolades include a Man Booker nod, making Granta’s Best Young British Novelists list and a Royal Society of Literature fellowship – has a reputation as a crafter of memorable sentences. Take for example this one from early on, as Henry remembers a deflated sense of occasion: “It involved a number of processes, visits, meetings, surveys, signatures, bank transfers, none of which on their own felt like buying a house but at the end of it all he had one.”

It was an enjoyable first read (and, at 182 pages, you can finish it in an afternoon) but why, I wondered, all this attention to Henry? By my count, only one-third of the narrative follows Kristin, even though it’s she who brings the novel to its concluding confrontation.

Then after a week, I returned to the beginning and found there what I hadn’t noticed the first time: how the writing’s straightforwardness is in fact a sleight of hand. The warning signs of Kristin’s obsessive fandom, seemingly harmless, were there from the start. So, too, were the hints that Henry doesn’t know how to interact with people when not reading lines. (Henry will echo a piece of audition script at a significant personal juncture. Listen for it.)

British press for the book (it was published there in January) emphasized the celebrity aspect of the novel, and while it’s true that fame – Henry’s yearning for it, and the opportunity it provides Kristin’s obsession – is part of what makes this book tick, that’s only half of it.

What makes this pair so interesting isn’t the asymmetry of their relationship, but that deep down, they’re so similar. Not in tastes, mind you. Kristin somewhat conflates the character Henry plays on television with who he is as a person. It’s this fantasy Henry she imagines herself with. She’s in for a shock.

Their similarity is in their common neuroses. Some writers might take a story such as this and feel the impulse to paint Kristin as the crazy, possibly misunderstood, one. Foulds, doesn’t do that, though. Yes, Kristin is sad. The second page references “her new ruined life,” and some might empathize with her emotional state postdivorce even while envying her material security.

But there are two deeply unhappy, troubled people here. Henry has a miserable relationship with his parents, the kind that leaves everyone involved worse off. Professionally, he’s jealous of others’ success and barely registers the public adulation he so craves. Then there’s the twinge of anxiety he feels when a woman tells him she recently spoke with his ex, with whom Henry has some unspecified trouble. I hope that last sentence will set off alarm bells for readers of all genders.

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Both of these people channel their dissatisfaction with the present by living in a rich fantasy land of the future they imagine for themselves – to borrow the novel’s title, a dream sequence – albeit in different ways. The most disquieting thing for me reading this book is it’s unclear to me when Kristin crossed a line to become who she is at novel’s end – maybe because that shift happened before the novel’s beginning, maybe because it’s disordered thinking, not behaviour, I should track. Or maybe because this way of living and hoping for a different future is so common.

“Henry hated thinking this way, interpreting signs, anxiously scrying the future, but helplessness made him as superstitious as anyone else,” Foulds writes. “If fame had taught him anything it was that everybody was mad in that way, in the dark privacy of their thoughts.”

That brings me to the life advice. Proverbial are the dangers of living in the past, but we rarely speak about the perils of living too much for what we imagine to come. Dream Sequence reminds readers to be present and to value what you have now. If you can live only for what’s on the perpetually receding horizon, it’s time to change your life.

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