Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A few thoughts on Margaret Atwood’s Payback

There is something cringingly jolting when you find yourself embarrassed by someone you revere. I can't shake that feeling right now having just finished Payback by Margaret Atwood. This isn't to say that the book isn't brilliant and that I'm not going to recommend it to friends; it is and I am.


The book overall is full of that casual genius that so much of her work teams with. There is that sharp insight, crisply illuminating details hidden right in front of our faces, and her amazing ability with language, using it so crisply and also plussing out double meanings. Travelling with her through an inquiry is a pleasure. This book is the bound form of a lecture series she presented, and you can sort of feel that as you read. It is communicated to an audience, not just a reader. This sounds like a silly distinction, but something delivered to a group versus individuals has a different feel to it even after it has been rendered for individual perusal. This is not a complaint; this is the same form that Negotiating With the Dead was born out of.


If I have no complaints about the scholarship or the handling of the subject or the form, why start off with a complaint? Because it is how the book ends which left me wincing; it is what I am left to walk away with.


Mrs. Atwood warns all the things this book is not about in the beginning, explaining that "Instead, it's about debt as a human construct –thus an imaginative construct- and how this construct mirrors and magnifies both voracious human desire and ferocious human fear." Or, "…that peculiar nexus where money, narrative or story, and religious belief intersect…" For the majority of the book, this is exactly what she satisfyingly delivers. Personal memories of childhood interactions with money and banking are shared, scientific studies are examined (providing what I found to be perhaps the most indelible anecdote in the book: monkeys in a study going apeshit over an unfair exchange rate for their pebbles when one gets a grape instead of the lame cucumber slices the rest of them had been given), and literature and popular culture are plumbed for relevant nuggets. It all flows smoothly and build progressively and works well together. Until the end.


Scrooge (Ebenezer and McDuck) is a reoccurring character throughout, at once recognizable and both beloved and reviled, an archetypical persona who would have been hard to avoid in any case while discussing debt in a modern Western literary context, and she uses him deftly and to good effect… for most of the discussion. But he is more than just a universal type, he is also a temptation. You can't have a cautionary tale to tell and invoke him and not end up tangled up in a late night trip with the ghosts of [subject of cautionary tale] past, present, and future.


It is a good story and a brilliant device, but I'm still a little surprised that she stepped in it. Still, it isn't necessarily that she went there, but that this departure lacked the style of the rest of the book. Also, it feels like a mugging. Her Dickens moment takes us through a night ride with a modern Scrooge who is painted to be everything obnoxious in a modern mogul –more on this in a moment- forced to look at his and, indeed, all of our effect on the earth and what the wages of that will be. It becomes an ecological tale. I've got absolutely nothing against a good ecological warning; we could use more of them. My complaint is that this comes flying out of nowhere and seemed so forced. The book was about debt as a human construct, how it is born out of our sense as social animals of value and fairness, and how this understanding plays out in the real world and how it informs the stories that we tell. The ecological angle isn't an unfair one, but it is a break with the narrative that had been built up. I can't argue with any of the information she drops on us, and I can't complain that it is being said. It just pulls away so much from the rest of the book and seems artificially inserted that I can't help feeling annoyed by it.


The ecological Scrooge presented also struck me as hitting the wrong note. I'll stand by my complaint that the book hadn't done anything to build up to the ecological warning, but if the Christmas Carol ploy had been explored differently I might have been less hostile to it. The Scrooge was too much a caricature and not enough of a Scrooge. Part of Scrooge's appeal as redeemable villain was that as we were shown how he failed and what turned him into who he was, it also made us care about him and understand how someone might end up there. You might want to grab him and scream that work and money aren't the most important things or that he should care and that other people care about him, but you find yourself wishing for a better future for him; you want him to get a second chance. Our new eco-Scrooge? Not so much. He is painted as this horrible smarmy nightmare and even if you find yourself terrified by this future we are getting warned of, you can't sympathize with the character being dragged through the night this time. Instead of finding him emblematic of ways any of us could get off track and find ourselves needing to reexamine our lives and beg for a second chance, he ends up playing more as a scapegoat for us to look at and revile and blame for where we are going. This is exactly opposite what the message needs to be: it isn't that some rich guys are going to kill us off with their greed, but rather that all of us are racking up this ecological debt and are going to have to make good on this withdrawal one day. She makes this point but her eco-Scrooge works against her efforts and discolors an otherwise spectacular book.



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