Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth Paperback – Sep 15 2008
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Quill & Quire
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.
...a fascinating, freewheeling examination of ideas of debt, balance and revenge in history, society and literature - Atwood has again struck upon our most current anxieties. (London Times Online 2008-10-08)
...an extraordinarily vibrant Massey Lecture on debt, how it plays a motor force in much literature, in our own lives and in the machinations of the crowd we elect to govern us. (Maclean's 2008-10-08)
...witty, acutely argued and almost freakishly prescient...as amusing as it is unsettling. (Chicago Tribune 2008-10-08)
...these pieces offer a panoramic look at how the concept of debt acts as a fundamental human bond and - when obligations go unfulfilled, when ledgers are left unbalanced - how it can threaten to tear societies apart. (Georgia Straight 2008-10-08)
A celebrated novelist, poet, and critic, Atwood has combined rigorous analysis, wide-ranging erudition, and a beguilingly playful imagination to produce the most probing and thought-stirring commentary on the financial crisis to date. (John Gray New York Review of Books 2009-04-01)
Atwood's book is a weird but wonderful melange of personal reminiscences, literary walkabout, moral preachment, timely political argument, economic history and theological query, all bound together with wry wit and careful though casual-seeming research.††††††† (Publishers Weekly 2008-09-08)
In Payback, Atwood freely mixes autobiography, literary criticism and anthropology in an examination of debt as a concept deeply rooted in human - and even, in some cases, animal - behaviour...Building an argument that abounds with literary examples...Atwood entertainingly and often wryly advances the familiar thesis that what goes around comes around. (Toronto Star 2008-10-08)
Payback is a delightfully engaging, smart, funny, clever, and terrifying analysis of the role debt plays in our culture, our consciousness, our economy, our ecology and, if Atwood is right, our future. (Washington Post 2008-11-08)
...[Payback is]...a demonstration of Atwood's ability to evoke in memorable detail our vanished cultural past, and to examine both past and present in the form of language. Writing in this mode, she's never off her game. (National Post 2008-10-08)
...[Payback is] elegant and erudite...As one would expect from a novelist of Ms Atwood's calibre, the phrasing is polished and the metaphors striking. (Economist.com 2008-10-08)
...replete with anecdotes and opinions, witticisms and barbs...Payback is more about economic principles, and even the market crisis, than it appears at first glance. As impressive as Atwood's intuitions, or her intellect, or even her humour, is her insistence on tracing responsibilities, and possibilities, back to those human, and thus imaginative, constructions. (Globe and Mail 2008-10-08)
Elegant and erudite...As one would expect from a novelist of Ms. Atwood's calibre, the phrasing is polished and the metaphors striking. (Economist 2008-10-01)
Nothing if not timely...Few writers are able to combine the esoteric with the polemic as [Atwood] does...darkly entertaining. (Winnipeg Free Press 2008-11-08)
Payback is a stimulating, learned and stylish read from an eminent author writing from a heartfelt perspective. (Conrad Black Literary Review of Canada 2008-11-08)
The lectures remind us of why Atwood has been so important to our literature. (Financial Post 2008-10-01)
There has been much written about Atwood's 'prophetic vision' and her ability to be eerily 'prescient'...given Atwood's track record, I'm a believer...Either Atwood was born under a lucky star or she really should be moonlighting from a shady storefront with a sign that says 'Palm Readings: $25.' (Rebecca Eckler 2009-02-09)
"Ms. Atwood is a witty and astute writer of broad sympathy and wide-ranging curiosity, and the prose of the book, at once commonsensical and counterintuitive, bristles with insight and implication." (A.O. Scott New York Times 2012-04-25)
Top Customer Reviews
Perhaps if she'd had another year to write it: originally her Massey lecture was scheduled for 2009 but was brought forward when a conflict emerged with the publication date of her next novel.
As it turned out, Payback: Debt and The Shadow Side Wealth, is somewhat like a character in a novel itself; caught up in circumstance, a hero determined to change the course of events yet doomed to fail by a tragic flaw.
A tragic flaw may or may not be known to the protagonist and in this case, Atwood is acutely aware of it. Still, she plods on as she tragically must, determined to fashion an answer to what was, a year or two ago when she started crafting her arguments, no more than a glimmer of pending economic crisis.
Atwood chooses Dickens' Scrooge for the model of her redemption story, contriving Scrooge Nouveau, a worldly, corporate, media savvy version of Dickens' original, and a capitalist with a keener eye for self-interest than the old miser ever had.
But like Dickens' Scrooge, Atwood's Nouveau version finds redemption to be a relatively free ride; it comes at no real cost to himself; he is more than able to share his enormous wealth. Like Dickens, Atwood advocates personal, internal, even spiritual change. Adopting an attitude of service to others, or the earth as Atwood suggests, serves everyone better, including oneself. It's a slight of hand accomplished by looking at everything one has, even one's body, as borrowed.Read more ›
Atwood begins with the notion of debt and its relationship to fairness, which is ingrained in the psyche of the human race (and other intelligent creatures). In early societies, she describes how notions of debt are aligned with justice, typically represented by a supernatural female figure. It is the emergence of Greece, and the induction of the court system described in Aeschylus' Oresteia, that the idea of a female arbiter of fairness/justice (and thus of debt) is replaced.
Next, Atwood describes the links between debt and sin. In heaven, debts are forgiven; in hell, debts are eternally paid back. The character of Satan is described as a collector of debts, and is often shown with a ledger or balance sheets. With these notions of debt and sin, the creditor is often seen to be as sinful as the debtor, particularly in pre-industrial literature. Moreover, motifs of debt are always twinned with motifs of credit, one symbiotic with the other.
In the lecture on "Debt as plot", Atwood examines the characters of Faust (as exemplified by Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, in particular) and Scrooge (of Dickens's Christmas Carol).Read more ›
Most recent customer reviews
I read this book several times! This book shows why Atwood is one of the best authors every. The whole book is interesting and draws readers in. Read morePublished on March 28 2014 by Mohanjit Singh
Though Atwood's heart is in it, and her argument sound, this book of "lectures" seems to be lacking something. Read morePublished on Nov. 3 2013 by Henriette T. Donner
If, like me, you love all things Margaret Atwood, you'll really enjoy this piece of nonfiction, a collection of the Massey lectures. Margaret Atwood is brilliant, as always.Published on Dec 29 2012 by Amanda
The book starts out with 3 very well written, well researched chapters that explore the concept of debt in a historical, religous and literary context. Read morePublished on Nov. 27 2009 by Westjeff
When I first picked up Atwood's essays-lectures on the subject of debt, I was skeptical that she, a renown Canadian writer and social thinker, would have anything important to say... Read morePublished on May 14 2009 by Ian Gordon Malcomson
Ms. Atwood has been an icon of Canadian literature since Methuselah (aka 'I') was a boy. Her books have been required reading in our schools for almost 5 decades and she is rightly... Read morePublished on May 8 2009 by Leonard W. Hindle
I expected this book to be a fictional story of some sort.
I expected to be taken into a world of characters experiencing and
suffering some kind of karmic chaos for... Read more
Fine writing, yes but no new insights. Concept of debt is closely tied to a concept of "working for the man" and being in a dependent relationship. Read morePublished on April 18 2009 by SD
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