Atwood Explores The 'Shadow Side Of Wealth'

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Margaret Atwood
George Whiteside

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Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

Margaret Atwood excels at combining intellectual rigor and popular accessibility. Her new book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, is a nonfiction meditation on the perilous economic situation in which many of the world's citizens — and governments — have currently found themselves.

This slim, discursive volume rose from a prestigious Canadian lecture series in which a writer is invited to grapple with a single topic. Atwood chose debt with her usual prescience, produced five essays and adapted them into a thoughtful book.

Payback reflects Atwood's deep fascination with moral codes and her staggering grasp of world religion and Western literature. She moves readers effortlessly from ancient Greek tragedy to 17th-century children's literature to the Lord's Prayer ("Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors") with striking forays into such fields as computer history and animal anthropology. (Apparently, one scientific study shows that capuchin monkeys recognize a rudimentary form of debt.)

While many of Payback's reviewers have been dazzled by Atwood's exploration of debt in terms of morality and justice, she's been criticized by nearly all of them for skipping over microeconomics and key concepts of legal debt. In an essay in Salon, writer Louis Bayard pointed out that Atwood alludes to "the Old Testament concept of Jubilee, which called on Hebrews to cancel all debts every 50 years, but for some reason, she never mentions the international Jubilee campaign, a liberal coalition dedicated to erasing all developing-world debt. Nor does she mention debt-for-nature swaps, which have channeled millions of dollars of canceled debt into conservation projects."

In the end — and maybe even in the beginning, Atwood suggests — it all comes back to nature and the awesome debt that human beings owe the planet. Her call for global forgiveness and a concerted environmental movement may strike some readers as dippy. (It doesn't help that she's draped much of it in an unconvincing revision of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.) But it is nonetheless fearless, and unfortunately for us all, still radical.

This reading of Payback took place in November 2008 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

Excerpt: 'Payback'

'Payback'

"Debt is the new fat," someone said recently. Which led me to reflect that, not so long ago, fat was the new cigarette-smoking, and before that, cigarette-smoking was the new alcohol-drinking, and before that, alcohol-drinking was the new whoremongering. And whoremongering is the new debt; and so we go in circles. What all these things have in common is that at one time or another each has been considered the very worst sin of all but has then gone through a period of being thought, if not totally harmless, at least fashionable. I left out hallucinogenic drugs, though they fit in there too.

We seem to be entering a period in which debt has passed through its most recent harmless and fashionable period, and is reverting to being sinful. There are even debt tv shows, which have a familiar religious-revival ring to them. There are accounts of shopaholic binges during which you don't know what came over you and everything was a blur, with tearful confessions by those who've spent themselves into quivering insomniac jellies of hopeless indebtedness, and have resorted to lying, cheating, stealing, and kiting cheques between bank accounts as a result. There are testimonials by families and loved ones whose lives have been destroyed by the debtor's harmful behaviour. There are compassionate but severe admonitions by the television host, who here plays the part of priest or revivalist. There's a moment of seeing the light, followed by repentance and a promise never to do it again. There's a penance imposed — snip, snip go the scissors on the credit cards — followed by a strict curb-on-spending regimen; and finally, if all goes well, the debts are paid down, the sins are forgiven, absolution is granted, and a new day dawns, in which a sadder but more solvent man you rise the morrow morn.

Once upon a time, people took the utmost precautions to avoid going into debt in the first place. There were various once-upon-a-times — as I've said, debt goes in and out of fashion, and today's admired free-spending gentleman is tomorrow's despised deadbeat. But the time I have in mind was the Great Depression, which my parents lived through as a young married couple. My mother had four envelopes, into which she put the money from my father's paycheque every month. These envelopes were labeled Rent, Groceries, Other Necessities, and Recreation. Recreation meant the movies. The first three envelopes had priority, and if there was nothing left for the fourth envelope, there were no movies, and my parents went for a walk instead.

My mother kept an account book for fifty years. I notice that in the early years of their marriage — the late 1930s, the early 1940s — they sometimes went into debt — fifteen dollars here, fifteen dollars there — or took out small loans from the bank — fifteen dollars here, fifteen dollars there. Not such small sums either, come to think of it, when the bread bill for the entire month was a dollar twenty and the milk bill was six dollars. The debts are always paid back within weeks, or a few months at the latest. Once in a while an odd item appears —"Book," two dollars and eighty cents; "Luxury_foods," forty cents. I wonder what the luxury foods were? I suspect they were chocolates — my mother told me that if they happened to come by any chocolates, they would cut each one in two so they could both sample all the flavours. This was called "living within your means," and judging from the debt tv shows, it's a lost art.

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Payback

Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth

by Margaret Atwood

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