Legendary poet, novelist, and essayist Margaret Atwood gives us a surprising look at the topic of debt -- a timely subject during our current period of economic upheaval, caused by the collapse of a system of interlocking debts. Atwood proposes that debt is like air -- something we take for granted until things go wrong.
Payback is not a book about practical debt management or high finance, although it does touch upon these subjects. Rather, it is an investigation into the idea of debt as an ancient and central motif in religion, literature, and the structure of human societies. By investigating how debt has informed our thinking from preliterate times to the present day through the stories we tell each other, through our concepts of balance, revenge, and sin, and in the way we form our social relationships, Atwood shows that the idea of what we owe one another -- in other words, debt -- is built into the human imagination and is one of its most dynamic metaphors.
Atwood's book is a weird but wonderful m lange 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. "Every debt comes with a date on which payment is due," Atwood observes on this conversational stroll, from the homely and familiar "notion of fairness" and "notion of equivalent values" in Kingsley's Water Babies to the thornier connection between debt and sin, memory and redemption in Aeschylus's Eumenides. "Any debt involves a story line," Atwood points out as she leads the reader into "the nineteenth century debt as plot really rages through the fictional pages," and ruin is financial for men, but sexual for women. Things get even darker on "the shadow side" where "the nastier forms of debt and credit" debtors' prisons, loan sharks and rebellions abide. Atwood is encyclopedic in her range, following threads wherever they lead credit cards and computer programs, Sin Eaters, Saint Nicholas, Star Trek, the history of pawnshops and of taxation, Elmore Leonard's Get Shorty and Dante's Divine Comedy, Christ and Faust and a consistently captivating storyteller.