Sarah Waters' New Novel May Not Inspire a Thousand Worldwide Celebrations, but It Should

The Paying Guests is a skillful work of genuinely entertaining literary fiction.

The Paying Guests

Publisher: Riverhead
Length: 566 pages
Author: Sarah Waters
Price: $28.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-09

I’ll start by saying a bit more about the last novel I reviewed here, Fourth of July Creek. (You’ll see why in a minute.) That novel was grating and over-hyped, and some distasteful aspects of the writing are still stuck in my craw. I think the book has garnered so much publicity in part because its author is an earnest white man. There. I’ve said it. If a woman had written it, I feel certain it would not have generated such absurdly large waves.

Also, it has one of those splashy, “give-me-attention” titles that men are so good at inventing. (Think of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, Philip Roth’s Plot to Kill America, Ethan Canin’s America America, Steven Zaillian’s American Gangster, Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story.) If, instead of Fourth of July Creek, the title of Henderson’s work had been, say, Story of an Irresponsible Social Worker, well, the sales might have suffered.

I recently stumbled upon Smith Henderson’s Twitter account, where I encountered this bit of twaddle about Fourth of July Creek: “Your book has guts, heart and fists to pummel. You didn't write a book; you birthed a heavy-weight champion.” And what kind of reader was responsible for posting that mawkish silliness? You guessed it. A man. Sometimes, when a man writes a mediocre book, it gets crazily mislabeled as “a heavy-weight champion.”

Sarah Waters, by contrast, has the (fiscally-speaking) “bad” luck of being a woman, and a lesbian, to boot. And she has given her work the unassuming title, The Paying Guests. If she had called it American Guests, she might have won herself an internationally ecstatic readership. Or perhaps, Fourth of July Manor? It wouldn’t matter that the novel is set in England—and has nothing to do with America. Slap a red/white/blue allusion onto the front of your book, and you’re certainly not going to do yourself any damage.

Years ago, when Waters made her literary debut, a heterosexual critic made this comment, whose condescension was probably unintentional: “If lesbian fiction is to reach a wider readership — as much...of it deserves to do — Waters is just the person to carry the banner.” (The critic: Miranda Seymour).I love the phrase “lesbian fiction”; it’s like “poetess” and “woman writer”. As if the experience of a lesbian character were so different from the stuff of “mainstream literature” that the story of that character’s life required an entirely different genre designation!

Perhaps along those lines we should start to refer to Henderson as a “man-writer”—a practitioner of “white-male-fiction”. (At a party, you could ask a friend if she has read a certain collection of James Salter stories, and your friend could sigh in a patronizing way and say, “Oh, that’s part of that ‘white-male-fiction’ trend, right? Much of that stuff deserves a wider readership.”)

Anyway, as you may have inferred, I think Waters’s new novel is outstanding. It’s the work of an artist at the height of her powers. Henderson could learn a thing or two from The Paying Guests.

It’s the story of a young woman, Frances, whose aristocratic status is in jeopardy after World War I. Her brothers have died in the war. Her father has also died, leaving behind enormous debts. Frances lives with her fussy, Victorian and yet (impressively) not-just-two-dimensional mother, and the two decide to take in lodgers—“paying guests”—so they can meet expenses.

The guests in question are a married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Barber. Mrs. Barber, also known as Lilian, takes a shine to Frances (who likes girls). Romantic complications ensue. And then the story takes one shocking turn after another, and The Paying Guests becomes a kind of crime novel.

Chekhov famously said that a story needs only two elements: a “he” and a “she”. This is especially true of classic noir tales: Think of Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Body Heat. The woman comes along and lures the dopey man into her sex-den where sparks fly. Love blossoms. And suddenly, the woman has some strange ideas. Why not commit a murder or two? The man, drugged by sex, agrees to fire the gun, or tie the noose, and so on. In the final act, the man discovers that the woman has an agenda of her own—and the woman leaves the man out to dry.

At times, The Paying Guests seems to follow this format (just with a "she" and a "she"), but Waters is too smart and subtle to conform entirely to the narrative archetype. Frances and Lilian are mysterious to each other, and often to the reader—just as the people in our own lives are mysterious. There’s real pleasure in speculating about the characters’ motives; Waters can quietly tilt the viewpoint just a bit, and suddenly a gesture that seemed utterly innocuous takes on new and menacing meanings.

How true this phenomenon is to life, and how rarely you encounter it on the page. We are all fumbling in the dark, doing our best to “read” one another—and our interpretations of friends’ behaviors are rarely 100 percent correct.

Waters does an astoundingly graceful job of spelling out how a relationship unfolds—at which moments the nervous lovers drift apart, and how small accidents can bring them back together, how fate can become indistinguishable from chance, how even two long-time associates can still look at each other as strangers. Neither Frances nor Lilian is simply good, and neither is simply bad. (This kind of complexity is something Smith Henderson strives for, but he doesn’t have the gift for organic storytelling that Waters possesses in spades. Henderson often seems to be shoehorning his characters into preconceived plot developments—developments he cribbed from a few high-profile HBO dramas.)

It’s also a testament to Waters’s gifts that the story ends in both a satisfying and plausibly thorny way. Some questions remain unanswered. The two main characters have gone on a complete journey, and you’re left eager to know where they’ll go next. They’re thoroughly changed. You want to write the sequel in your mind. How difficult, and how admirable, to pull off an ending that both sates you and leaves you chomping for more.

There are no distracting attempts at flowery language here. Sentences push the story forward, and forward, and forward. That’s not to say that characterization suffers at the hands of the plot. Everything seems beautifully integrated, so you feel as if an actual life were unfolding before you—a life that happens to be far more thrilling than most.

Lastly, note that Waters names her sources in her acknowledgments. Apparently, there are quite a few books about real-world, early 20th century, sensational, British crimes. Waters’ work so thoroughly enthralled me that I jotted down the titles of her references, having decided to flirt with the possibility of reading the stuff that she had read. Next on my list: Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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