Fiction

Why You So Obsessed with Me?

Dream Sequence BY Adam Foulds. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. hardcover, 224. $25.
The cover of Dream Sequence

Of the emotional afflictions we witness in those around us, obsession may be the most discomfiting. It’s also the most gendered: We’re conditioned to find it appealing, flattering when a man is the obsessed—Calvin Klein’s women’s fragrance “Obsession,” is, I assume, designed to elicit obsession from males who pass within smelling range of the female wearer, after all. But an obsessed woman? It’s likely people find her pathetic. In the case of Adam Foulds’s recent novel Dream Sequence, we see obsession engulf Kristin, a lonely divorcée who spends her time holed up in her TV room watching The Grange.

Recently divorced from her former boss, Kristin has become infatuated with the British turn-of-the-century detective show’s leading man, Henry Banks. As she trudges across the gray streets of Philadelphia on her way to yoga, she’s “in tune with a different time, historical and civil, walking in the salted channels between crusts of snow with the quick chirping British voices of The Grange talking in her head.” After meeting Henry in a chance airport encounter a few years earlier, Kristin’s life was cleaved into two eras: pre- and post-Henry. Since then, she’s been writing letters to him twice a week, watching him on TV, and scrolling through Google alerts for his name.

Though the novel opens with Kristin, we spend only the first dozen or so pages with her. The action then moves to Henry, who is presented as her polar opposite. A handsome London actor on the brink of major stardom, he has recently landed the role of a traumatized US Iraq war veteran in a new big-budget film. Most of the novel is spent inside Henry’s mind as he carefully plots his rise and dithers over his various insecurities—he’s frustrated with his lot in the acting world and obsessed with the kind of fame this new job could bring him.

If, for a moment, we were to imagine that such an inside look into a famous person’s mind might be interesting, Henry confirms there’s little there. At first glance so different from Kristin, he possesses a self-obsession that rivals Kristin’s for him. He counts little more than narcissism among his personality traits; he seems almost literally carved out of marble. “When Henry caught sight of his face he often felt as though he were arriving late at something already happening. His face looked so finished and authoritative,” Foulds writes. “He had the approved lines, the symmetry; he looked how a man should look.” We’re with Henry for what feels like ages. Throughout his travels to Doha for a film festival, his auditions, his extreme dieting, we’re wondering about Kristin and how the obsession Foulds has delicately introduced is unfolding. The narration from Henry’s point of view is so smooth as to be almost hypnotic: Like Kristin, we can’t get him out of our heads.

Foulds has created a stark dichotomy between these two protagonists—the urbane, famous Brit with the regal name and the bland American who spends most of her time watching him on TV. But Foulds reveals that Henry and Kristin are both affected by the universal human frailty that touches not only the sad and lost, but also the seemingly successful. Dream Sequence is a novel about that frailty, wrapped up in obsession and told through the easily dismissed story of a woman with a crush on a famous actor.

Because of Foulds's subtle sentences and the slow burn of the plot, the evolution of Kristin’s obsession goes almost undetected, luring the reader into a false sense of security. Though we don’t see it as it happens, Kristin has been spending her ample free time preparing for a trip to London, where she’s certain she’ll make Henry fall in love with her. Her family doesn’t seem concerned about her plans. Maybe they’re fooled by how everything else about Kristin seems normal—she had a job, a husband, stepchildren. It’s possible they see the trip as a chance for her to lick her wounds and distract herself from her divorce. Kristin’s obsession has a smooth veneer, a mix of extreme intensity and resigned calm. She interacts with the world almost as if it, or she, were behind glass.

As Kristin’s story takes over, her behavior has the horror-movie quality of being shocking but impossible to look away from. Kristin arrives in London despite her mother’s meek attempt at dissuading her in the form of a voice mail. She finds Henry’s apartment and charms his playwright father at a rehearsal for his new show. She meets Henry’s agent, who realizes this is the woman responsible for the deluge of letters arriving for Henry. After nearly two hundred pages of quiet simmering, the novel ends in a twenty-page whirlwind. After Kristin corners Henry at the premiere of his father’s play, the two spend the night together. Henry had gone home with her somewhat halfheartedly—though he’d been unimpressed by the fawning adoration Kristin bestowed on him, she was distraction enough from his own thoughts. When she shows up at his apartment the next day, Henry furiously forces her to leave and Kristin promptly drowns herself in the Thames. In the end, Foulds makes her suffer so greatly that we’re ashamed at our mockery. Kristin’s end is horrifying, but even more so because no one thought to stop her.

What we may not immediately put together, what Foulds speaks to, really, is that Henry and Kristin are one and the same. Henry’s fragility and obsessiveness are just like Kristin’s. We pity Kristin as we watch her plot her moves. But early in the book, in hopes of sealing the deal after his audition for the big-budget Hollywood film, Henry stalks the movie’s famous director around the National Gallery and orchestrates an “accidental” run-in with him in one of the exhibition halls. Although his stated ambition is to be known as something more than the handsome face on that vapid TV show, what he really wants is validation in the same lurid way that Kristin wants it from him. But we don’t bat an eye when it’s male, and it’s ambition.

Maya Chung is a writer living in New York.