Margaret Atwood is a genius, no question. She’s the best-selling author of 35 books of poetry, fiction and nonfiction, a winner of the Booker Prize, the vice president of PEN International, and roughly a million other kinds of awesome. That’s why it’s absurd for a 28-year-old punk like me to discuss Atwood with anything less than breathless adulation. But I can’t help it-reading Atwood’s latest work of nonfiction, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, is like being taken on safari by a guide with attention deficit disorder. You want to see 1) elephants, 2) lions and 3) antelopes, and get home before dark. The guide, who loves the veld and knows everything about it, veers off the path and careens toward the watering hole, then stops short and makes you get out to examine on all fours the tiny, gorgeous flowers blossoming out of a dung patty. It’s fascinating, yes, but frustrating too. Atwood’s intelligence and education are so prodigious that she dispenses altogether with certain structural fundamentals of nonfiction writing and just barrels after what interests her. For fans accustomed to hearing Atwood’s thoughts through the veils of story and character, the informal voice of Payback will be clarion and thrilling. For readers more concerned with debt and the dysfunctions it wreaks at every level of society than with getting to know the author herself, Atwood’s unfettered riffs on Scrooge McDuck and debt as a plot device in 18th-century novels might be less than satisfying.
The tip-off that this will be an interesting, if unconventional, journey is on page 9. “What is this ‘debt’ by which we’re so bedeviled?” Atwood wonders. “Like air, it’s all around us, but we never think about it unless something goes wrong with the supply.” This gave me pause. Yes, debt is all around us, but unlike Atwood, I think about it all the time, in both concrete and abstract terms. As for the metaphor of debt as air, I don’t need debt to live, though I can’t argue when Atwood continues, “Certainly it’s a thing we’ve come to feel is indispensable to our collective buoyancy.” Of course she’s referring to the role of credit in the economy, but then she turns from that thought and spends 38 words introducing clichÃ©d and unenlightening metaphors: “In good times we float around on it as if on a helium-filled balloon; we ride higher and higher, and the balloon gets bigger and bigger, until-poof!-some killjoy sticks a pin into it and we sink.” She concludes: “But what is the nature of that pin?”
Atwood may as well be asking, Have you ever really looked at your hands? The full cultural significance of debt is a topic that can hardly be dealt with in 200 pages, and certainly not with metaphors like “debt is air.”
Payback comes from a series of lectures Atwood delivered on Canadian radio, and it still reads like that. It has five discrete chapters, each dealing with a different aspect of debt. They don’t build toward any cohesive thesis, and even internally tend to be “about” a particular aspect of debt rather than working toward an answer to any central question.
The first chapter, “Ancient Balances,” is the exception, and it’s also the most satisfying. “Ancient Balances” posits that we humans must possess a fundamental, inborn sense of fairness for borrowing and debt to work. Atwood cites evolutionary biology, Greek and Egyptian mythology and her own childhood as evidence, and makes a convincing, enjoyable case.
“Debt as Sin,” however, opens with the vague citation, “‘Debt is the new fat,’ someone said recently.” Atwood muses that at different points in history, different sins-cigarettes, alcohol, whoremongering-have taken the fore as mankind’s downfall du jour, and that it’s debt’s turn now. She points out that debt and sin have been used interchangeably in religious contexts since biblical times. Then she riffs on pawnshops, 1984, Sin Eaters, hostage-taking and the importance of records-keeping for 30 pages before getting to the supposedly central question of the chapter two pages from its end: “Which is more blameworthy-to be a debtor or to be a creditor?” Rather than answering, she concludes with this aimless paragraph:
“I’ll end with two ambiguous epigraphs from the vast grab bag of English folk sayings-one for debtors and one for creditors. For debtors: ‘Death pays all debts.’ For creditors, ‘You can’t take it with you.’ Neither one of these is strictly true-debts can linger after death, and ‘You can’t take it with you’ depends on what ‘it’ is-but that’s another story. And it’s to that other story-or rather to debt as a primary engine of story itself-that I will turn in my next chapter, which is called ‘Debt as Plot.’” Blindly idolatrous Atwood fans will probably be happy to roll with such casual transitions, but to this reader they clunk.
“Debt as Plot” is less vaguely free-form, but only because it surrenders any pretense of relevance to current events and instead meditates on debt as a driver of narrative. She opens with a discussion of Eric Berne’s 1964 bestseller, Games People Play, one of which is called “Debtor,” the most interesting variation of which is called “Try and Collect.” Atwood writes, “The obtaining of goods on credit, the avoidance of payment, the thrill of the chase, the anger at the creditor, and the acting out of victimhood all come with their own jolt-of-brain-chemical rewards, and each also performs the function of providing a key element in a story-of-my-life game of ‘Debtor’ plot line.”
Atwood then examines the role of debt in the plots of Christopher Marlowe’s Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Washington Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker” (one of many variations on the Faust story) and William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. This is all cohesive literary criticism until Atwood, touching on women and debt in literature, mentions George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. Suddenly the chapter is interrupted.
Atwood writes: “But here I must make a detour. For Maggie Tulliver is a miller’s daughter, not a stationer’s daughter or a plumber’s daughter, and that makes a difference. So I’ll say a few words about mills, because being a miller’s daughter carries a heavy weight of mythic significance. As does being a miller. As, indeed, does being a mill.
“Mills, millers, millers’ daughters. I’ll tackle them in that order.
“Water-wheel mills are very old …”
Eleven pages later, Atwood wraps up her mill lecture and begins her two-page summary of the preceding 40-page chapter, which, with some gentle shaping and premeditated editorial choices, would already be nestled neatly between the reader’s ears, fully grasped, rather than sprawled out in the short-term memory, confused.
Payback‘s fourth chapter, “The Shadow Side,” is more engaging, if only because it is grimmer. “The Shadow Side” deals with the consequences of unpaid debt-including tax rebellions, revolutions, the mass destruction of debt records, the slaughter of creditors and personal revenge-as they’ve played out in different societies through history. Atwood finds a groove in her discussion of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, showing where history meets literature in a stirring and trenchant treatise on the effects of debt on the human soul. It’s a riff that works, and Atwood parlays it into the story of Nelson Mandela, asking whether forgiveness might set both creditors and debtors free.
Chapter Five is the make-or-break chapter. So far, Atwood has shown off her capacities as a historian and literary critic, if not necessarily a focused, formal essayist. Will Atwood prove that all those rambling tangents and musing digressions were included to support one grand, overarching thesis?
No. The “Payback” chapter opens with a five-page summary of the foregoing chapters, then slips into an eloquent rumination on the idea of the due date, the deadline by which a debt must be paid. One can almost hear the bells of a thousand grandfather clocks tolling midnight as Atwood meditates on time. Then she begins to tell a story. It’s cute at first, a snarkily modern update of A Christmas Carol: “Scrooge has enjoyed a modest dinner of Chilean sea bass-an almost extinct fish, but delicious, and anyway somebody’s got to eat it, because it’s already dead, so why waste it?” But then Marley appears, and Marley, rather than wearing the chains he forged in life, is covered in rotting garbage. “Wound around him and trailing on the floor is a long chain made of stinking fish, wildlife specimens that are falling apart, and the skulls and hair of developing-world peasants.”
“‘I wear the trash heap I forged in life,’ says Marley.” The reader, if the reader is me, stops dead in her tracks. Is this a joke? No, it’s not. The point of Atwood’s treatise on debt is going to be a “green” one.
The first spirit to visit Scrooge is the Spirit of Earth Day Past, a “pleasant-looking damsel, clad in green, with a wreath of flowers in her hair. She looks like an all-natural-and-organic shampoo ad.” At this point, the reader may be confused. Is Atwood advocating environmental consciousness, or making fun of it?
The Spirit of Earth Day Past tells Scrooge that “ancient cultures” valued the Earth and that Mother Nature will collect on man’s debt, then shows Scrooge images of the Black Plague, the Irish Potato Famine, and the squalor of rickety children in tenement London. “How can people live like this?” Scrooge asks. “What choice did they have?” the Spirit replies. “There was no social safety net.”
The reader notes that social safety nets for the poor and environmental protections are different, possibly even divergent agendas, and wonders which one Atwood and the Spirit are really trying to sell.
Then arrives the Spirit of Earth Day Present, whose demeanor is so distasteful that one can only quote Atwood’s rendering: “‘Yo, Scrooge baby,’ says the man, West Coastishly. ‘I am the Spirit of Earth Day Present. Just call me S of EDP.’ He’s wearing a bicycle helmet and a hemp T-shirt that says Hug My Tree. In one hand he’s carrying a use-again shopping bag made from recycled plastic pop bottles, and in the other he holds a coffee cup that says Songbird-friendly Shade-grown Fair-trade Pesticide-free Organic. He looks a little like David Suzuki, a little like Al Gore, and also a little like Prince Charles, in his organic farmer guise. ‘So,’ he continues, ‘which piece of disaster-in-the-making do you want to visit first?’”
Nothing could make me want to recycle less than the prospect of coming across like this guy. Naturally, he goes on to show and tell Scrooge about the evils of overfishing, subsidized biofuels, razed rainforest and thawing tundra. The S of EDP drops some knowledge on Scrooge about the International Monetary Fund and food speculators, and as they fade away Scrooge shouts at them, “Don’t be stupid!”
So far in this fairy tale, Atwood has presumed that behaving mercifully toward the Earth and toward the underclasses are synonymous, that the difference between an enlightened course of individual action and a selfish one is a matter of mere education, and that people who are serious about environmental reform have to be obnoxious. It’s simply beneath her, this story. It’s unworthy of the erudite and insightful, if desultory, prose that’s gone before it.
The Spirit of Earth Day Future is a cockroach, and when Scrooge objects to the characterization it becomes a futures trader (ha) who shows him one world of idyllic economic, democratic and environmental harmony and sustainability, and another world where hyperinflation has left Scrooge penniless. He leaves Scrooge to make his choice, and as Scrooge gazes out his window in the morning, he ponders: “I don’t really own anything … Not even my body. Everything I have is borrowed. I’m not really rich at all, I’m heavily in debt. How I do even begin to pay back what I owe? Where should I start?”
And there it ends. That’s the end of the book. Atwood takes her reader on a crazy journey across space and time and history and literature and concludes with a sophomoric and saccharine environmental parable that makes both engagement and disengagement look unappealing. Plus, if you’re me, then the whole time you were reading you were seeing Scrooge McDuck, who just doesn’t have the gravity that Atwood intends. I see him frowning out across his orange beak at what Atwood so gorgeously describes as “the trees and the sky and so forth.”
One more thing. Go back to Atwood’s next-to-last-sentence. “How I do even begin?” she asks. See the typo? It’s a small point, but it illustrates a bigger one: Even a genius could use a good editor.
Contributing writer Emily DePrang lives in Pearland.