- Paperback: 240 pages
- Publisher: House of Anansi Press Inc.; 1st Edition edition (Sept. 15 2008)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0887848109
- ISBN-13: 978-0887848100
- Product Dimensions: 12.7 x 1.3 x 19.7 cm
- Shipping Weight: 272 g
- Average Customer Review: 16 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #162,339 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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)
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Ms Atwood's book (or lecture as originally presented) is well researched and flows merrily along with lots of charming anecdotes including all those posed above but, at the end, it is rather like finger food at a cocktail party: tasty but offering little solid sustenance. Best reserved for those times, such as a long international flight, when something that occupies the mind without challenging the intellect is useful.
For those who thought otherwise, the book has no insight or comment relating to today's debt/credit crisis other than in a most general way.
Margaret Atwood has produced a very entertaining look at the role of debt in a cultural and historical context.
We learn too much about debt from a purely economic standpoint these days, and economic theory, as we have been seeing, is largely nonsense, so it is nice to see a discussion of the subject from a cultural standpoint.
Atwood shows that the concept of 'debt' is primarily a social or moral concept and has taken on different forms through our history.
In the first chapter she shows that part of Western culture has been about Fairness, and that even primate studies show that our biological relatives have a very real sense of fairness.
But for different cultures or for people in different time periods, fairness could mean different things. Much depended on who owed what to whom. We have money debts and moral debts, and, they both could be seen in a similar light.
Which leads to chapter two which deals with the moral side of debt. Here we meet the Devil, and Dr. Faustus. We sell our souls to the Devil for immediate gratification, only to have to pay the debt later. Atwood likens this to pawning something. The point here is that usually what we have to pay back is more than what we got in the first place. Our souls are worth more than the gratification we got at the time, and what we pay to redeem our article from the pawnbroker is more than what we got for it.
In the third chapter we get an interesting discussion of debt as seen in literature, from Marlowe to Dickens. here we see the negative aspect of the creditor's role in debt. if the creditor did not lend money, there would be no debt. if the creditor did not charge such high interest, debt would not be such a burden, and if the Scrooges of the world payed their employees what they were worth, there would not be such a need to borrow.
And in chapter four we see the seedier side of debt.
The final chapter is called "payback" and tries to sum things up.
What makes this book so good is that it treats this topic with wit and humor, and by using various literary sources, we see that the notion of debt and payback, whether it is sacrificing an animal to a deity, or paying high interest on a loan, the role of the debtor and creditor are symbiotic: You can't have one without the other.
And, while people go into debt for various reasons, the main reason seems to be that we all want what we see as everyone else as having, even if we can't afford it.
But just think if there was no one to lend. What would happen then?
The only negative aspect of the boo, for me, is that I was hoping for a discussion of what is going on in economy today as an example of what had been discussed up to this point. I realize that I am criticizing a book for not doing something it was not supposed to do, but it would have been nice to see a discussion of how our current financial system has become based on debt and not on positive production.
But all in all, an interesting read.
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