116 Following


"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen

Review: Payback, by Margaret Atwood

Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth - Margaret Atwood

The whole world is swimming in debt, and by that I don't just mean a lot of us are up to our eyeballs in overdue bills. I mean that the concept of debt - of being in hock, of owing something to someone, of carrying a balance that will soon come due - is a construct that permeates our social environment, and has done so throughout recorded history. The idea of debt is central not only to our financial lives, but to our relationships with others, the metaphors we use and the stories we tell, and it can even be viewed as the primary theme of the Christian religion.

But what is debt? And why is it so important to the human condition?

Atwood is my favorite novelist because her incisive prose cuts so deeply and directly to the unspoken heart of any matter. This is the first nonfiction of hers that I've read, and I loved it for the same reason. I didn't know I had the capacity to fall so very hard in love with a nonfictional treatise.

Typically my opinion of non-narrative nonfiction varies along a single axis, from "interesting" to "boring". Sure, there's some room to impress me with style, but that's about it. This book is on a completely different plane. I know that there is more literary nonfiction out there, and I need to start finding it. Trendy Daily-Show intellectuals and their workmanlike disquisitions just aren't going to cut it for me anymore (sorry Nate Silver, et al.)

In Payback, Atwood looks at the philosophical, psychological, religious, and literary underpinnings of debt, searching for a deeper understanding of what it is and why it matters so much to us. After noting that justice and fairness are concepts observed not just in all human societies, but also in monkey and ape behavior, she surmises that there must be something innate within us that latches on to this idea. It's part of the basic human "smorgasbord" of concepts, just as "building a web" is part of a spider's, and "licking her own butthole" is part of my cat's.

And indeed, debt is a very old notion. Hammurabi's Code introduced the "eye for an eye" option for settling accounts. In ancient Egypt, your soul's moral credits and debits had better have evened out by the time you died, or else your heart would get thrown to the alligators. And ancient Greece and Rome gave us blind Justice, balancing the scales to ensure everyone gets what they are owed.

The book's most interesting chapters, however, deal with Christianity. Because, as Atwood deftly points out, the basic story of Christianity is a story about debt: God creates Man, who then owes the Almighty obedience and worship in return. But with original sin, Man defaults on this obligation and plunges himself even further into spiritual debt. It's such a massive imbalance that Man cannot hope to repay it and get his soul back into the black (especially since he keeps sinning and digging himself in deeper), but then Jesus comes around to redeem him (in both senses of that word). The debt is forgiven, and Man avoids the debtor's prison that is Hell.

It's as if our souls are all being held in hock in a mystical "pawnshop of the soul" - where the broker is the devil, and only Jesus can spot you the cash you need to get your shit back. When you die, you've either accepted the son of God's largesse, or whoops, time's up, Satan gets to keep you.

This way of framing Christianity is utterly fascinating to me. It takes this archetype that we associate with finances, capitalism, and worldly concerns, and shows how both it and our most holy testaments are cut from exactly the same cloth. There are only a few basic archetypes in human symbology, and the idea of debt is clearly a cardinal one.

Atwood goes on to examine debt in literature - whether financial (Ebenezer Scrooge's miserliness), spiritual (Dr. Faustus and others who sell their soul to the devil), or soaked in blood (the Merchant of Venice's pound of flesh, Hamlet's obligation of vengeance).

Finally, she looks at the debt we owe to the natural world - we have been drawing on Nature's resources for far too long and the balance is coming due.

Overall, this book is a fascinating examination of a concept I'd previously taken for granted. It's insightful, smart, funny, and incredibly readable. It won't tell you how to get yourself out of debt, but it will give you some insight into why your debt even matters, philosophically speaking. I can't praise this book enough. Atwood is my hero.


10 August 2013