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Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth

by Margaret Atwood

The evidence is in: Margaret Atwood simply sees more clearly than the rest of us. In her five-part 2008 Massey Lectures, the author applies her familiar cultural X-ray vision to dark material. Debt is usually regarded as bloblike, cheerless, and about as illuminating as a dungeon. But Atwood sees things in it that we don’t. What she offers us in these meditations is nothing less than a secret history of human obligation, economic and otherwise.

From ancient tax collectors to the reason why “Hell is like a maxed out credit card,” Atwood exposes the debts we incur and the pledges we make in the arenas of law, business, religion, and the environment. Along the way, she examines the notion of debt as personified by key figures: literary (Dr. Faust, Shylock, the Brothers Grimm); astrological (Libra); and – most formidable of all – actual (the gossips of smalltown Ontario). At the end of the book, Atwood totes up humanity’s moral ledger and asks: What happens when we take more from the world than we give?  

There is a wealth of information here (puns may be unavoidable in this review), none of it predictable. As Atwood comments at the outset, Payback is not about economic data, national debt, or money management. Rather, the book is about the realities of being human. We need and want things we often can’t acquire as quickly or as cheaply as we would like. So we tap the other guy.

Debt, by its very nature, is about imbalance, which leads to trouble. Atwood illustrates this in five extremely engaging and expertly crafted chapters. “Ancient Balances” deals with society’s long, bloody slog toward the rule of law and a system of fairness. “Debt and Sin” has the Lord getting in on the act: financial debt becomes a metaphor for sin and, later, an actual sin. The related essays “Debt as Plot” and “The Shadow Side” examine literary treatments of debt in the work of such disparate writers as Elmore Leonard and Machiavelli. In the last chapter, “Payback,” Atwood laments the profligacy and shamelessness of the West and reckons that, like those who sell their souls to the devil in old blues songs, we all got to pay up – soon, and big.

Debt is a real killer when it is not about money. Take blood feuds, for example (one of Atwood’s more winning attributes is that she is happy to tackle a good blood feud). You hit me, I hit you. Then you hit me again, because you owe me a debt of violence, and so on. These chain reactions  often spiral out of control, until everyone forgets the reasons for the original conflict and eventually acknowledges the futility of it all.

Then there are debts of honour: those instances in which our egos will not allow us to accede to an insult, or a lover’s departure, or, say, the prospect of admitting failure to the American people. Atwood points out that while the antidote to blood feuds is not revenge but forgiveness, debts of honour are less tractable. They’re about pride, or patriotism, or lust, and thus are more difficult to pay off.

Our biggest, most incalculable obligation, though, is a collective one to our tender planet. How we discharge our debt to nature depends on mankind learning to develop new values that will allow us to “count and weigh and measure different things altogether.”

Atwood is perfectly at ease, and perfectly persuasive, in the realms of classical mythology, showbiz, literature high and low, fashion, natural history, and politics. When things threaten to get over-academic she zings in a personal anecdote, or a bit of humour, or both (cf. her brilliant stories about growing up starchy in the 1940s). When our attention starts to wander she’s right there with a gleaming observation (“How fascinating that we say a person ‘redeems himself’ when he’s been guilty of a disgraceful action and then balances it out with a good or noble one. There’s a pawnshop of the soul, it appears.”).

The last section – in which Atwood escorts Dickens’ Scrooge through the Past, Present, and Future of our soiled globe – is the only one that feels less than accomplished: it’s too manic, and the laughs feel strained. But overall, Payback is wisdom we can take to the bank – even as it poses the questions destined to haunt our jittery, overdrawn era: What is the real cost of living? Can we even afford ourselves anymore? Payback reminds us that, one way or another, the piper must always be paid.