If Margaret Atwood had written Payback in order to pay off a debt like Charles Dickens is said to have been motivated to write A Christmas Carol, perhaps it would have turned out be a better book.
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.
Atwood’s Scrooge parable is the fifth and final chapter of Payback, and surprising because there is no payback, no belt-tightening, no hard choices, no revenge and no sacrifice, even after the four previous meticulously researched chapters show how the debt “story” or narrative always involves a payback, a literal paying back of what has been borrowed, or a symbolic and often vengeful payback, extracting a price for a moral wrong, often from the usurious creditor. In either case, the story of debt always involves loss: of homes, relationships, jobs, even lives.
History shows no compassion in balancing the scales.
So it seems odd that the sardonic, intellectual Atwood would fashion a happy ending in which no one gets hurt. Like Dickens, Atwood’s outcome lacks the tragedy of real payback. Unlike Dickens, it lacks the fireside warmth of reconciliation. The result is unconvincing. Though like Dickens, Atwood’s somewhat Disney-like ending is likely to serve. Literary critics have puzzled over Dickens enormous popularity and commercial success despite being an outspoken political critic. Perhaps it was because he could only imagine individual solutions to problems that he also saw as arising out of individual failings. The individual is after all, no matter his or her political stripe, the basic building block of capital.
Ultimately Payback fails to is paint a picture of human folly and redemption in terms adequate to the scale and scope to the social and systemic crisis we are facing. The Dickensian world has been superseded by a global one of mass media and public and private institutions so large as to be unimaginable in his time. Of course, it is too much to ask of any artist, even if they are more observant, sensitive, tuned in than most folks. Artists may indeed be prescient but cannot be expected to be oracles. And in fairness, Atwood drops hints here and there about interesting “outside the box” type solutions like debt cancellation, which at this point we must imagine leaders and bankers around the world to have put in play billions and trillions of dollars in order to effect.
In his Salon review of Payback, Louis Bayard pretty much nails the problems mentioned here, in particular the cheesy Scrooge Nouveau ending. Perhaps the book was brought out too soon, driven by circumstance, or even the avarice of a publisher quite possibly giddy with their good fortune to have in hand something like a first person account from the cliff edge of the lemmings charging over. At publication date, the full extent of the economic crash still wasn’t clear (it’s still not) and Atwood’s lecture would have been conceived and written months before when everyone still thought the environment was the No. 1 issue facing humankind. It’s a bit like Stephan Dion’s Green Shift in the recent Canadian election; a program years in the making, diligently crafted, intelligent, yet effortlessly blindsided by the economy and a Conservative “be happy, don’t worry” sort of non-engagement.
Payback is a story that needs a new ending. Better still, a new ending written every few years (or months at the current pace of change). If debt will always be with us, what becomes critical is who writes its story, particularly the ending.