I was not too sure what to expect when picking up this book. However, I recently read Strange Things, another collection of lectures by Atwood, and really enjoyed it, so I was confident when starting it. I was not disappointed. Payback discusses a topic I would not necessarily read about, debt, but in an enjoyable way.
I think what I like most about Atwood’s lectures is their liveliness. She has done her research and her talks are informed, but the serious matters are lightened up by her humour and wittiness. I particularly like all the little anecdotes Atwood has to say and her references to literature are varied, which makes her topic more approachable.
In Payback, Atwood considers the concept of debt and where it comes from. She goes all the way back to ancient Egypt to explain how the concept of debt derives from the idea of fairness and the principle of justice. She also analyses the connection between debt and sins, which brings her to consider the concept of pawn shops and of sacrifice. Another focus is on what happens when we cannot pay back and she looks at the idea of eternal debt, but also the concept of revenge, which is another type of debt. These considerations are illustrated by examples from literature and one of her chapters is devoted to debt as a plot, in which she discusses the fairy tale “The Girl Without Hands”, a story present in various way in her writings.
Finally, she considers the debt we owe to Mother Nature. This is my favourite part. She asks readers to imagine a modern Scrooge, “Scrooge Nouveau”, a businessman loaded with money and whose only concern is his money. The description she makes of him is a hilarious satire, which seems so true. Although the tone remains playful, the subject matter becomes grimmer as the story goes. Along with Scrooge Nouveau, we are brought into the past, the present and the future to see what humans have become indebted to Nature and what happens as they cannot payback. The future offers two possibilities, depending on the choice we decide to make regarding Nature.
Of course, these are things I think about on a daily basis (each time I make the choice to turn off the switch of the plugs in my house), but the way Atwood writes about it is powerful and brought tears to my eyes. I am not sure if these were tears of sadness or anger, probably a bit of both. It made me want to send the book to all the businesses that leave their lights on at night. I want to talk about it, I want to make people aware that we can make decisions to help our planet. Every time I bring up this topic, I hope I get the person to become conscious that s/he has a choice and believe it is a small victory.
Enough for now, but I will leave you with a short passage:
“But the clock is striking twelve, and under his hands the Spirit is dissolving.
It’s changing to something dry and scaly. Now it’s a giant cockroach. ‘I am the Spirit of Earth Day Future,” it says in a rasping voice.
. . .
At first Scrooge barely recognizes his future self. He’s gaunt and frantic, and pushing a wheelbarrow full of cash. As he watches, his future self tries to exchange this mountain of money for a can of food, but it’s no deal.
. . .
‘The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small,’ says the Spirit. ‘Mankind made a Faustian bargain as soon as he invested his first technologies, including the bow and arrow. It was then that human beings, instead of limiting their birth rate to keep their population in step with natural resources, decided instead to multiply unchecked. Then they increased the food supply to support this growth by manipulating those resources, inventing ever newer and more complex technologies to do so. Now we have the most intricate system of gizmos has ever known. Our technological system is the mill that grinds out anything you wish to order up, but no one knows how to turn it off. The end result of a totally efficient technological exploitation of Nature would be a lifeless desert: all natural capital would be exhausted, having been devoured by the mill, and the resulting debt to Nature would be infinite. But long before then, payback time will come for Mankind.'”
And if you have the time, you can watch this video of Atwood discussing her book (she does it much better than I do):