Timing is all. In 1969 Margaret Atwood’s An Edible Woman was published, and its iconic portrayal of women moulded into objects for male consumption caught the crest of the feminist wave and surfed into the shelves of required reading. Almost four decades on, Payback, her meditation on the nature of debt, appears just as the world is freefalling into an economic trough. Has she given voice to the zeitgeist again? If so, we are entering a world of stern reciprocity — as you sow so shall you reap — in place of the pickpocket exuberance of free-market economics.
The debt on Atwood’s mind is always double-headed. One person’s debt is another’s credit, and that connection between two people necessarily implies that the financial arrangement must be a moral relationship as well. ‘But the truth is’, said Samuel Johnson, railing against the 18th-century equivalent of subprime mortgages, ‘that the creditor always shares the act, and often more than shares the guilt, of improper trust.’
Consequently, the author’s meditation takes her back to the origins of social morality, the desire for fairness. To illustrate that a sense of equity is innate, she cites a nice experiment in which a group of monkeys, trained to exchange pebbles for thin slices of cucumber, went into a deep sulk when one of their number was unfairly rewarded with juicy grapes. From there, by way of the retributive justice of the Furies that cancelled a blood debt in Greek drama, Atwood moves on to the Janus-headed creation of Charles Kingsley, kindly Mrs DoAsYouWouldBeDoneBy and harsh Mrs BeDoneByAsYouDid, who taught the rules of personal obligation, and arrives at the book’s most successful section, a long essay on Ebenezer Scrooge, where she can get to grips with both the devil and capitalism. ‘Oh, but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!’
Scrooge’s sin is what Atwood fastens upon. Deftly weaving in the diabolic pacts made in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, she argues that Scrooge is Faustus’s heir, a man who has sold his soul to the devil. The nature of sin has changed since the 16th century, from the mere possession of wealth to the failure to be generous with it in the 19th century, but the devil’s work, which is to screw up the protagonists’ sense of values, never alters. Naturally, there is one value the devil always seeks to distort, the basic human sense of fairness.
Rather oddly, Atwood pretends that a childhood exposure to Presbyterian values has left her with a healthy disrespect for the church’s teaching. But by now it should be apparent that Payback is in fact an eloquent, original and stimulating tribute to everything she learned in Sunday school. In a fine peroration, she offers the degradation of the planet as the supreme example of an unfair debt, the rape of resources by the present populace, regardless of cost to the unborn future.
Meanwhile the recession, in Atwoodian terms, is of course payback time for letting ourselves be seduced by the devil in the 21st century — for mistaking the sale of subprime mortgages for economic sense, for supposing the market-place to possess an inbuilt sense of its own weakness, for believing financial regulation to be out of place, for thinking that a banker, unable to tell how much money he’s lost, actually deserves to be paid millions of pounds, and so on. In short, Margaret Atwood’s deeply enjoyable contemplation of debt comes from the same stable as the classic Presbyterian sermon about the sinners burning in hell who call out, ‘Lord, lord, we didnae ken.’ To which God replies, ‘Ah weel, ye ken noo!’