Book Thoughts: Payback by Margaret Atwood

I knew that, in addition to her mind-blowing fiction, Margaret Atwood also writes some pretty decent poetry.  And now I come across her non-fiction book, Payback (Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth.)

The book is as thought-provoking as I assumed anything by Atwood would be. (Okay, that sounds a little too  much like “How much wood would a woodchuck…) The book has nothing to do with managing your finances and everything  to do with examining the meanings and origins of the concept of debt.  What do we owe each other and why do we think we owe it? 

Of particular interest to fiction writers will be chapter three: Debt as Plot, which made me think that there aren’t even four basic plots. Perhaps there’s only one, and it is debt. Who owes what to whom, how did they get into that debt and how are they going to get out of it? She begins the chapter by saying “Without memory there is no debt. Put another way: without story there is no debt.”

She goes on to examine the story of debt in various works of literature, her rather obvious starting point being Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Some whopper of a debt there. She also discusses A Christmas Carol, Vanity Fair and, a less obvious choice, Wuthering Heights. Think that last title is about romance and affairs of the heart? Well, Atwood would have us know that the heart keeps a balance sheet.  Then too, Heathcliff uses financial debt to control those around him. 

After reading Payback I find myself examining many of my assumptions about life and human relationships. I also find myself reading fiction with a new eye. Want to  unravel the plot? Follow the debt.

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