With this short, lively and exceedingly timely book, Margaret Atwood has written what might be described as an intellectual history of debt. There are no Alvin Hall-style tips for getting out of financial difficulty, and those looking for insights into the causes of our current economic predicament will be disappointed. Atwood's focus, instead, is on debt as a 'human construct' - or, to put it another way, debt as an idea. Not surprisingly, given her day job as a novelist, she peppers her argument with copious examples from literature, dipping into texts ranging from Aeschylus's The Eumenides to Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. The end result is not so much a single argument as a compendium of mini-essays on the various ways that debt has been thought about through the ages.
Debt is certainly a good subject for a survey of this sort. For one thing, it's a topic that rarely gets tackled by anyone other than economists and personal finance gurus, so the territory is wide open. For another, the concept of debt is, when you think about it, amazingly broad in its reach. Understood at the most basic level, a debt has nothing to do with money; it is simply something that is owed. And all sorts of things can be owed, both material and non-material. We can be indebted to someone for their love and friendship, or we can be indebted to them for the cup of sugar they brought round the other day. Equally, we can incur debts for wrongdoing. If I hurt my friend then it is reasonable for him to expect me to make up for that hurt. If I don't then he may consider it his right to do me an injury in return. (This is the principle of revenge, to which Atwood devotes several pages.) Almost every human interaction carries with it a metaphorical balance sheet, an implied burden of obligation and reward.
Debt, understood this way, is inseparable from the business of life. Moreover, the concept of debt underpins many of society's most important belief systems, most obviously the law, morality and religion. Our notions of justice and punishment are predicated on the idea that those who break the law owe society a debt, which they must make good either with a monetary payment - a fine - or by means of some other penalty, such as a prison sentence. Morality, too, is at root a system of debt, although this time the entity you owe payment to - the creditor - is not society but God. The Christian narrative can likewise be viewed through the prism of debt, with God figuring as a kind of benign banker. He has given us something of incalculable value - life - and, if we play by His rules and make our (moral) repayments on time, we'll be allowed to hold on to it for ever. By the same token, the Devil can be seen as a malevolent creditor, tempting us with material benefits (wealth, sex, power) in exchange for our long-term spiritual health. It is no surprise that in literature the Devil is often portrayed as a lawyer or accountant, totting up the debts (or, in the Faust legend, souls) owed to him in a ledger. In Payback, Atwood touches on all these themes and many more besides.
The book began life as a lecture series, which perhaps explains its ultra-chatty style ('I'd like to make one of those Star Trek-ish hyperdrive leaps in time and space') and somewhat hyperactive structure. Atwood clearly isn't bothered about coming across as a know-it-all, and the knowledge she displays is formidable. In the course of a couple of pages, for example, she connects the results of a 1970s computer simulation program with a character in a Victorian children's book, and then darts off to ancient Assyria to discuss the origins of a zodiac sign. (It all just about makes sense.) She appears to have read the whole of Western literature and to be an authority on ancient languages. At one point she even makes a foray into animal anthropology, citing a study of capuchin monkeys which, she claims, demonstrates that a rudimentary grasp of debt exists in primates. Such wide-ranging knowledge has its drawbacks, however. Because Atwood constantly veers off in new directions she doesn't always give herself time to sink her claws deep into a topic.
The result is that, although Payback is packed with information, it can seem oddly thin. There is a suspicion that Atwood's erudition has a defensive quality, that it is a way to avoid engaging with real argument. Moreover, when someone appears so well-versed in so many areas (and so keen to impress this fact upon you), it becomes harder to forgive them when gaps do appear. In her discussion of the concept of legal debt, for example, Atwood appears unaware that many early legal systems were based on making cash payments for crimes. The idea of 'paying your debts to society', which she spends some time puzzling over, becomes less mysterious when understood in this light.
Still, Atwood's enthusiasm for her subject and lively style go a long way toward making up for these flaws. She can be a brilliant phrase-maker, and has a gift for summing up an idea with a single vivid image. She points out the fundamental ridiculousness of the self-help idea of 'owing it to yourself', since it casts you as your 'own creditor and debtor rolled into one'. Elsewhere, she memorably describes Hell as being 'like an infernal maxed-out credit card that multiplies the charges endlessly'.
And the topic itself is so endlessly interesting that it is hard not to be carried along. Although Atwood doesn't make a big show of the fact, many of her discussions are highly relevant to current events. She probes the relationship between debt and evil, for example, with a brilliant account of the various Devil-as-creditor characters in literature. The most famous is, of course, Mephistopheles, and Atwood, with her usual erudition, describes not just the Marlowe and Goethe versions of the Faust myth but also a less celebrated 19th-century retelling by Washington Irving. What emerges is how malleable the legend is, how easily it can be re-cast according to the values of any era - including our own. It wouldn't require too much of a leap, for example, to see the modern-day sub-prime creditor as yet another Mephistopheles, tempting us with gaudy fantasies of earthly riches. Unlike his predecessors, though, this Mephistopheles wouldn't be interested in your soul: he'd be after your house.
Atwood's discussion of the connection between evil and debt leads, in turn, to another pertinent question - that of blame. Who, she asks, bears most of the blame for debt: the lender or the debtor? As she points out, in different times and in different places the balance has shifted. The idea that being in debt is sinful has deep roots in Christianity - as indicated by the existence of debtors' prisons. But Atwood points out that moneylenders have most often been made scapegoats for financial turmoil, and it is by no means only the Jews who have suffered in this respect. This is something that we should bear in mind before we become too pious in our condemnation of City bankers.
Atwood rounds things off by moving from finance into more wishy-washy territory. She ends the book with a modern-day retelling of Scrooge, which concludes with a banal vision of ecological redemption. It is by no means the highlight of the book but that doesn't mean its message has no value. At a time when so many of us are mired in debts of the financial variety it is worth remembering that it is the other, non-financial debts that we owe - to the planet, and to each other - that may prove most important.
- William Skidelsky