07 March 2009

Down payment

Margaret Atwood was one of the first writers I discovered completely on my own -- without the help of a teacher or a parent or a books section. I read the back cover of a copy of CAT'S EYE and since then have worked my way through most of her other works. When I hear it's Atwood I will always give it a try.

That said, I had a hard time getting through her latest book PAYBACK: DEBT AND THE SHADOW SIDE OF WEALTH, and I'm not sure I can recommend it. Unlike most of Atwood's best known works, it's nonfiction -- a loose exploration of the concept of debt in history and literature, how it has been linked to sin and social obligation. She's particularly fascinated by the way a debt binds debtor and creditor -- that despite how people with large balances might see it, holding a large debt is not really a victimless crime. What we do to people who can't or won't pay their debts can't really make that connection go away.

This book is based on a series of lectures Atwood gave about debt, and maybe as a lecture her chosen themes cohere better than as written essays, because I didn't usually follow where Atwood was going, and when I did I didn't think it was worth the trip. I was reminded of a TA I once had who taught me that even in a short paper, there have to be transitions among ideas. Sometimes the leapfrogging just got out of hand. Other devices she uses, for example her practice of using childhood songs to illustrate a point, probably needed that in-person animation because they were lifeless on the page. The flourish of the last chapter, which purports to rewrite and modernize A CHRISTMAS CAROL, feels completely obvious and overwritten.

That said, the real reason I can't recommend PAYBACK is that there's nothing new presented here except maybe a few Emma Bovary jokes. Maybe I wouldn't expect that in different times, but I was disappointed.

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