Margaret Atwood agrees that it’s been one of those months when the news gives her work an added jolt of relevance. The latest book by Canada’s most revered author is Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, made up of the five essays she’ll present during a cross-country tour as this year’s CBC Massey lecturer. (She’ll make a stop here in Vancouver on Wednesday [October 15]). Taken as a whole, 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.
As Atwood explains to the Georgia Straight when reached by phone in Toronto, she began planning the lectures two-and-a-half years ago. It is, she says, merely a “stunning coincidence” that they’re appearing before the public now, at a time when record-setting failures on Wall Street seem designed to prove Payback’s arguments about the self-destructive urges of unrestrained markets.
“That’s what happens, I have to say, when you deregulate a system like banking,” Atwood tells the Straight. “When you take away the set of rules that even the playing field and are supervised [from outside], what you’re doing is saying to all of the companies, 'Okay, the sky’s your limit. Do whatever you need to make more money than the other guy.’ And what they will do is cut corners. It’s universal-you can’t avoid it. And you can extend that to airlines-and how comfortable does that make you feel? Not especially. People can say cheerily, 'Oh, the market will take care of that, because if this outfit has too many crashes, then people won’t fly on them anymore.’ And you think, 'Well, I don’t want to be on the plane that crashes. I don’t want to be part of the experiment.’ ”
All of the recent chaos in the financial sector has prompted the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Times of London to run excerpts from Payback, yet the book is no straightforward op-ed piece. For one thing, Atwood, still first and foremost a novelist, wants to show the concept of debt as one of the most compelling fictions ever conceived. By that, she does not mean something illusory, even though the credit crisis has proven that mammoth investment banks can be reduced to vapour as easily as any figment. (“If everybody stops having faith in them—like Tinkerbell, 'Clap if you believe in fairies’—if everybody stops clapping, the banks do vanish,” she quips to the Straight.) Instead, she is referring to an essential act of the imagination, something as integral to human consciousness as memory.
“The idea of Person A owing or being owed by Person B is somewhat built-in,” Atwood contends. “Porcupines do not have a debt system, as far as we know. They’re pretty solitary. Slugs don’t have one. But social animals with a sharing but also a hierarchical tendency-which is what we are, if viewed in that light-will have a 'what is owed, who owes it, who’s it owed to’ method of thinking.”
As striking (and amusing) evidence, the opening lecture in Payback cites a 2007 Emory University experiment in which researchers trained capuchin monkeys to exchange pebbles for slices of cucumber—an arrangement that continued peacefully until one monkey was instead offered grapes, a favourite food. The result was widespread revolt, with the other monkeys throwing their pebbles from the cage in seeming outrage. Among social creatures, Atwood argues, balance is everything, and a sense of fairness is innate.
In exploring this concept, Payback ranges from the ancient religions of Egypt and Greece to Elizabethan tragedies and the novels of Elmore Leonard. This means looking at the many historical and moral facets of the primal need to square accounts, including the darkest ones: the debtors’ prisons, the Faustian contracts, the unending chains of reprisal.
“If the scale is out of balance, there either has to be a money-and-goods compensation or there has to be a revenge compensation,” Atwood explains to the Straight. “And the trouble with revenge compensations is there isn’t a really hard-and-fast rate of exchange. So how much revenge is enough? That’s why so much of [the Old Testament books] Deuteronomy and Leviticus have to do with how you conduct debt transactions and also how you conduct wrongs transactions. The old eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth thing, that’s a very simple rate of exchange. And it gets into the justice system too, because what is putting somebody in jail? Well, unless they’re a seriously dangerous person, it doesn’t do societies any good. In fact, they have to pay for it. So what’s it for? Well, it has to be for revenge. Society doesn’t actually get anything back except the satisfaction of knowing that you had a bad time.”
As the lectures move toward their conclusion, Atwood raises the idea of payback to a cataclysmic scale, describing the human race as recklessly indebted to the natural world itself, an entity that, she says, seeks equilibrium with the ruthlessness of any loan shark. The final piece offers a wickedly satirical reworking of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, in which the Spirit of Earth Day Future—part cockroach, part futures trader—shows a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge images of “chaos, mass death, the breakdown of civic order” following a human-induced ecological collapse. It is a vision of nature finding balance simply by rubbing us out, removing from the picture a species that scoffs at its terms.
“It would solve some of nature’s problems, as it were,” Atwood remarks with a pointed laugh. “If any biological population expands past the limit where it can sufficiently feed itself, and then there is a slight diminishment of the food supply, there’s going to be a lot of trouble in that population. A lot of animals and birds in nature are self-regulating. So if the falcon sees that there aren’t very many willow ptarmigan this year, they just won’t raise young. They see that they’re not going to be successful, so they save it up for another year when there may be more willow ptarmigan-and the fact that they do that actually helps the willow ptarmigan to increase, because they’re not needing to catch so many of them. But we just think we’ll make more.”
This, as the Spirit of Earth Day Future explains to Scrooge, is the “Faustian bargain” that mankind made “as soon as he invented his first technologies” and began convincing himself that nature’s limits on human expansion no longer applied. Yet unlike Faust, Atwood says, we still have the ability to avert doom. As Payback argues at every turn, the debt relationship is as close a bond as any, with the fate of each party dependent on the other. It is ultimately a matter, then, of realizing that the bond between human beings and their environment is no different—and of arriving at that realization soon.
“We’re coming to the end of the time when we can pretend there isn’t any connection,” Atwood declares. “We’re coming to the end of the time when we can pretend that steaks grow in supermarkets, already wrapped.”
We can either learn to see this now, and begin restoring balance to our behaviour, or we can wait and wind up paying with everything we’ve got. And in Atwood’s view, we won’t have to wait long: the due date is fast approaching.
Margaret Atwood will make two local appearances next week. On Tuesday evening (October 14), she’ll be the guest of the CBC Radio Studio One Book Club (www.cbc.ca/bc/bookclub/ ). She’ll deliver her Massey lecture the following night (October 15) at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts (www.cbc.ca/ideas/massey.html ).