We All Owe: A Review of Margaret Atwood’s Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth

David F. Smydra Jr.

Anansi, $15.95 (paperback)

Few things are so easily defined by their negative as debt. Debt is what we lack—but with a cruel twist.

“You are free to draw or not to draw,” says Thomas Mann’s mystic, Cipolla, in “Mario and the Magician,” holding a deck of cards before an audience volunteer. “But if you draw, you will draw the right cards—the more certainly, the more wilfully obstinate your behaviour.”

This is debt. The moment we accept debt as an idea, we confront its grim reality. We are in it. Our only move is always a losing one.

“What is this ‘debt’ by which we’re so bedevilled?” Margaret Atwood asks in a collection of lectures titled Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. (1) “Like air, it’s all around us, but we never think about it unless something goes wrong with the supply.”

Atwood recalls earning her first cash in a baby-sitting gig by “wheeling a baby around in the snow.” As long as she “brought the baby back, alive and not too frozen,” she got twenty-five cents. Steady income soon meant a bank account and things called “balance” and “interest.” These puzzled the child Atwood. The adult Atwood uses the memory to reveal the immateriality of even our most fundamental institutions. “I knew from fairy tales such as Peter Pan that if you ceased to believe in fairies they would drop dead: if I stopped believing in banks, would they too expire? The adult view was that fairies were unreal and banks were real. But was that true?” (Atwood’s answer, which she plants in the endnotes: “It is in fact true that if you stop believing in banks they will expire.”)

Payback is less a chronological study of debt and more of a sequential mapping of Atwood’s own ideas and associations, whereby she leads the reader on a journey through the imaginative history of debt. The Egyptians, for instance, believed that the goddess Ma’at weighed the departed’s heart against “nothing less than the sum total of order in the universe.” But scales are just some of the historical iconography associated with balance—ledgers, arrows, and swords also figure prominently—and we don’t come by them lightly. In a swift rehashing of the Eumenides, Atwood explains how the “tit-for-tat blood feud” of Orestes, Electra, and Clytemnestra eventually yielded to the courts established by Athene, which are “presented as more enlightended and more civilized, recognizing as they do the payment for injuries in currencies other than blood; and the long chain of blood feuds—by which one death leads to another, ad infinitum—will be broken.”

Atwood identifies a common concept in multiple traditions. “This concept—that there is an underlying balancing principle in the universe, according to which we should act—appears to have been almost universal. In Chinese culture, it’s the Tao or the Way, in Indian culture it’s the wheel of karmic justice.” Given the natural inclination of the universe to seek balance, it follows that the relationship between creditor and debtor must aim toward balance as well: “Debtor and creditor are two sides of a single entity, one cannot exist without the other, and exchanges between them—in a healthy economy or society or ecosystem—tend toward equilibrium.”

Equilibrium, however, has hardly ever been the watchword of debtor-creditor relations. Each side has historically held the opposing party in harsh esteem, often to the extent of vilifying either lending or borrowing as sinful.

In fact, sin and debt are more than just related. Atwood tells us that in Aramaic, “the Semitic language that was spoken by Jesus, the word for ‘debt’ and the word for ‘sin’ are the same.” The Torah prescribes that debts be wiped clean every seven years; the early church deemed interest a grave sin. In time, the sin was on the other foot, and society played the wrathful god. Debtors’ prisons punished borrowers subsumed by their debts. Locks and bars elided the difference between “can’t pay” and “won’t pay.” Meanwhile, an entire religion crafted itself around the concept of debt. Christians worship a man who paid for their sins/debts so that they might live. Atwood writes, “There’s a pawnshop of the soul, it appears, where souls can be held captive but then, possibly, redeemed.” Better to take Polonius’ advice, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” This runs precisely contrary to our modern directive, however. “(W)e are constantly told that borrowing is actually laudable because it turns the wheels of ‘the system,’” Atwood writes, “and that spending lots of consumer money keeps some large, abstract, blimpish thing called ‘the economy’ afloat.”

How we got to this point as a culture is particularly interesting to the novelist. Debt requires plot: “how you got into debt, what you did, said, and thought while you were in there, and then—depending on whether the ending is to be happy or sad—how you got out of debt, or else how you got further and further into it until you became overwhelmed by it, and sank from view.” Atwood performs a handful of drive-by readings of works by Christopher Marlowe, George Eliot, Flaubert, Chaucer, Thackeray, and Dickens, among others. By canvassing sundry instances of debt functioning as plot across different periods and genres of literature, Atwood simultaneously outlines the larger plot of how we all have been seduced by debt’s wily ways. Technology and bureaucracy play central roles in this drama. But it is Atwood’s detailed interpretation of Dickens’s Scrooge that impels the second half of Payback.

Scrooge, as Atwood sees him, is Faust in reverse. Instead of spending his most precious capital on what he wants—as Faust spends his soul—Scrooge holds onto everything he owns. “Scrooge’s big sin was to freeze his money,” Atwood points out. By the final curtain, Scrooge has learned to throw his money around to make people happy, and thereby redeem himself. Capitalism loves such solutions.

When money stops, consequences begin. This is what Atwood calls the shadow side of wealth. Debt brings out the worst in us. At best, this could be described as pettiness; at worst, revenge or vengeance. The shadow side is what drives Shylock to demand his pound of flesh from Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, despite being offered three times the value of Antonio’s debt. (Equally important, Portia’s shadow side provokes her to deprive Shylock of money-lending, which is his only means of making a living.)

In any event, all ledgers have a date column. All debts come due. This is “the time when whatever is on one side of the balance is weighed against whatever is on the other side—whether it’s your heart, your soul, or your debts—and the final reckoning is made.”

So Atwood wonders what Scrooge would do in today’s world. More to the point, and given the expansive notions of debt spun out in Payback, “Would Scrooge feel he needed to pay a moral debt to his fellow men, or would he come to realize that there were other kinds of debts to be paid by him as well?” To work out these questions, Atwood conjures a character she calls “Scrooge Nouveau.” She also conjures some updated avatars of his visiting ghosts, who show Scrooge Nouveau the debts of the modern world: his body, the environment, the too-leveraged masses. In short, the novelist shifts from essay to fiction.

When the Spirit of Earth Day Present visits Scrooge Nouveau, their conversation echoes the fatalism of Mann’s Cipolla. Here they discuss what would happen if the whole world defaulted on its debts:

“But that would screw up the whole system,” says Scrooge.
“You miss my point,” says the Spirit. “It’s already screwed up.”

Fortunately, Payback is more than a grim assessment that we have all already lost, or that we have no winning moves. Throughout Payback (and its pithy endnotes), Atwood frequently makes asides, mentioning her friends, her family, her colleagues. She cites the work of other artists and researchers, often in a familiar but respectful tone. The endnotes for each section even possess their own dedications. Garrison Keillor has written of stories being our only universal currency because they make us real to each other. By rendering her work in such personal terms, Atwood reveals how those around her have been made real to her. She makes them real to us. And with her final pages, Atwood gives us a story. Perhaps storytelling and other arts, which fortify the very bonds that debts seek to supplant and exploit, can provide better opportunities for redemption than pawn shops and balance transfers.

At the very end, Scrooge Nouveau wakes from his dream and asks himself: “How do I even begin to pay back what I owe? Where should I start?”

Clever final sentence. The reader is challenged to begin anew. Like all right things, the path intimidates. But it’s an exhilarating path, from an exhilarating writer.

1. The lectures were prepared for the Massey Lectures Series, an endeavor cosponsored by the book’s publisher, as well as CBC Radio and Massey College in the University of Toronto. You can listen to Atwood’s entire reading of Payback here.

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