Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth BY Margaret Atwood. House of Anansi Press. Paperback, 280 pages. $15.

The cover of Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth

It seems entirely fitting that the first study to take intellectual measure of the present economic crisis should come from a Canadian fiction writer, best known for dystopian portraits of social control gone hopelessly awry. For as Margaret Atwood contends in Payback, an edited collection of talks she delivered as the 2008 CBC Massey Lectures, debt is both a financial and a spiritual condition, occupying “that peculiar nexus where money, narrative or story, and religious belief intersect, often with explosive force.” Atwood, of course, began her book well before the September collapse of world finance capitalism as we’d come to know it. But she discerned enough of the calamity to offer a bracing meditation—indeed, a jeremiad of sorts—on the perils of staking our collective well-being on little more than a series of ever-larger kited promissory notes.

She conducts her tour of the subject in an engagingly conversational fashion, moving easily from reminiscence of her hardscrabble childhood in Toronto and environs to the ancient world’s austere systems of accounting the afterlife prospects of the deceased. She argues that humans, like other social animals, are hardwired to recognize arrangements of fair exchange—that evolution proceeds via the rough sense of social reward and punishment that Robert Wright has called reciprocal altruism. Atwood adumbrates the ways that this core affinity for the fair deal has grown distorted over time—especially with the advent of industrial capitalism in the nineteenth century. As the new economic order took shape, she writes, its workings “seemed a great mystery—how some people got very rich without doing anything that used to be called ‘work’—and the superstitious might well believe that some hand other than a human one had stuck its infernal finger in the pie and helped the prosperous but surely wicked capitalist to pull out the plums.”

So in short order, the great novelists of nineteenth-century England—the workshop of the capitalist world—adopted the matrix of financial fortune as the engine of their plots, from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair to Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss to (yes, even) Emily Brontë’s romantic melodrama on the moors, Wuthering Heights. Atwood reports that in revisiting such classic fiction, she was struck by how it’s “driven by money, which indeed holds a more central place in it than love does. . . . The best nineteenth-century revenge is not seeing your enemy’s red blood all over the floor but seeing the red ink all over his balance sheet.”

Such tit-for-tat moralism, seeking to superimpose financial failings on alleged moral ones, has no purchase on latter-day conceptions of debt, where subprime mortgages get reconfigured as investment securities, and giant institutions have collapsed by speculating on credit-default swaps. Projected onto the financial fortunes of great nations, this dynamic eroded economic health on a enormous scale, with the United States going irretrievably into the red in part to fund its imperial adventures abroad. Throughout history, Atwood writes, such arrangements usually work out to a debtor nation’s “loss of power and influence—often the very things the leader waged the expensive war to gain.”

Payback is far from the last word on our newly straitened world of debt-driven decline. Indeed, Atwood’s wide historical compass occasionally creates distortions of its own—as when, plumbing the Janus-faced character of mythic figures dispensing both largess and spiritual torture, she asserts that the nineteenth-century British “colloquial expression ‘Old Nick’—meaning the Devil—is directly connected with Saint Nicholas,” citing the red-suited, hairy, and soot-friendly profile of both figures. However, the more common etymology for the expression traces it to Niccolò Machiavelli. The omission is all the more puzzling since Atwood discusses Machiavelli at length in her treatment of the handling of national debts.

And the book’s eponymous last chapter is, unfortunately, an ill-considered fantasia on Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” projecting Scrooge into the guise of twenty-first-century market mogul. This debt-steeped figure is guided through alternate visions of his past and future by incarnations of the Spirit of Earth Day, who schools him in a grim litany of Malthusian planetary payback, from the fate of the Chilean sea bass to the origins of the Black Death. If this isn’t subtle enough, the future Spirit of Earth Day first manifests itself as a cockroach—you know, the life-form likely to inherit the despoiled earth—and the spirit’s present incarnation says things like “Yo, Scrooge, baby” and delivers pedantic perorations on overfishing, the World Bank, and the IMF. These outbursts tend, by virtue of their apocalyptic tenor, to feed a certain political fatalism, via formulas like this: “The killing of the Earth is driven on by poverty on the one hand and greed on the other.”

Atwood is on far surer ground when she hews to the foundational sense of fairness she evokes at the book’s outset, as a means of charting the way the equation of debt has come to penalize individual debtors who lack resources, to the benefit of far-better-heeled, opportunistic creditors. A more suitable moral for our present predicament perhaps comes courtesy of Samuel Johnson, whom Atwood quotes on the inequities of the British debtors’ prison: “Those who made the laws have apparently supposed, that every deficiency of payment is a crime of the debtor. But the truth is, that the creditor always shares the act, and often more than shares the guilt, of improper trust . . . and there is no reason, why one should punish the other for a contract in which both concurred.” Words to live by—and, indeed, a far sharper verdict on our perilous seven-hundred-billion-dollar financial-industry bailout than any pundit has managed to deliver today.

Chris Lehmann is an editor of Bookforum.