Sitting in A grand 18th-century clubhouse near St James's Park in London, Margaret Atwood exudes intelligence; her fine, birdlike features, mischievous blue eyes and on the eve of her 70th birthday. Even more remarkable than her presence, though, is her prescience.
In 1984 she wrote a dystopian vision of a fundamentalist society in which women are reduced to the status of child-bearers and servants, forcibly desexualised and veiled - The Handmaid's Tale pre-empted the Taleban's misogynist regime in Afghanistan, and the rows over Islamic women's dress and rights in Europe. Another futuristic novel, Oryx and Crake, charted the destruction of the Earth by global warming, pandemics and rampant genetic engineering. It was published in 2003, before Sars, bird flu, An Inconvenient Truth, and the genome revolution.
Now, in her new nonfiction book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth - a fascinating, freewheeling examination of ideas of debt, balance and revenge in history, society and literature - Atwood has again struck upon our most current anxieties. As the credit crunch grounds airlines and topples banks, nobody can escape the spectre of debt. So where does she keep her crystal ball?
“It was a coincidence,” she claims. “I chose this topic several years ago and then found myself writing the book while all this was happening - the sub-prime mortgage crisis, and these ads plastering the Underground: ‘We will help you with your debt', ‘Why pay more?', ‘Declare personal bankruptcy!'.”
The subject of debt first occurred to her when she was asked to write a public “letter to America”: “I found myself doing it as the troops were about to invade Iraq, and I wrote, ‘Why are you digging yourself into a great big hole of debt?' Typically empires expand past where they can afford to defend their perimeters, at which point something is going to break.” She gives a dry chuckle. “The barbarians will get in sooner or later.”
Payback is Atwood's contribution to the Massey Lectures - a prestigious annual event that has been hosted by Martin Luther King and J. K. Galbraith - and once the book is published she will tour her native Canada reading from it. It has been hard explaining what it is about, though, or why she, a novelist, should be tackling economics: “It was never just about money: it was about owing. Money is the form in which we have embodied this but it takes a huge number of other forms. What we're really talking about is imbalances of obligation, which is what debt is.” Payback casts its net far and wide, taking in Ancient Egyptian heart-weighing, the bizarre practice of “sin eating”, Mesopotamian debt slavery, simian trading habits, Scrooge, Faustus, Get Shorty and Jung.
The Iraq war may have been the kick-off point, but debt had preoccupied Atwood for as long as she can remember. Her parents lived through the Great Depression, during which their income went into four envelopes: “Rent”, “Groceries”, “Other Necessities” and “Recreation”. “The first three envelopes had priority,” Atwood writes, “and if there was nothing left for the fourth envelope, there were no movies, and my parents went for a walk instead.” This, she concludes, is the “lost art” of “living within your means”.
Born in 1939 in Toronto, Atwood recalls that “We weren't supposed to talk at the dinner table about religion or money or sex. Money interested me because it was forbidden - but you knew it was there.” She collected pretty coins and was fascinated by the cash-splashing exploits of the comic-book character Scrooge McDuck; but it wasn't until she was 8 - when she had her first paying job and bank account - that money became real. “My parents didn't give my brother and me a lot of pocket money; they had worked from a young age and didn't see why we shouldn't too. But a lot of the traditional ‘kid jobs' that I did are now either classified as child labour or they don't exist.”
After babysitting and blueberry picking, as a teen Atwood was employed as an “arrow demonstrator” - having learnt archery during a “curious upbringing” that involved spells in the remote Quebec woods while her father studied insect behaviour - at a sports show. Later, with a friend, she ran a children's puppetry business that became so successful that they hired an agent. Even writing quickly proved its earning potential: “I was very pleased when my first poem got published. I got paid $5 - probably more than the rate now,” she adds, laughing.
As an adult, Atwood retained her parents' frugality, while immersing herself in another deeply financial environment: “I became a Victorian. That was my field of study at univer-sity - and that's the age par excellence in which plots are driven by money and people are embroiled in an outbreak of capitalism. Wuthering Heights is driven by money: Heathcliff earns a fortune and then comes back to extract the house from its previous owner. Madame Bovary would have been quite all right had she kept within her budget. It's not the adultery - it's the debt that sank her.”
It is the most famous 19th-century character of all, though, who is the presiding spirit of Payback: Ebenezer Scrooge, the progenitor of Disney's Scottish miser duck. “He's an extreme version of ‘living within your means',” Atwood says. “He does nothing with them except make more means.” In a capitalist society, Scrooge's major sin is that his currency is not “current” - it does not flow. Until, that is, he undergoes his transformation, when he becomes a dual, before-and-after figure. “He fulfils both our wishes: our wish to keep it all to ourselves and our other wish to be kind and generous and for people to like us”. The central chapter of Payback shows how Scrooge is the mirror image of the 16th-century Dr Faustus. Between Marlowe and Dickens, society's view of riches had reversed: for Faustus free-spending is damnation, for Scrooge it's salvation.
For us it's the norm. In the past 50 years we have gone so far down the free-spending route that debt is no longer feared but shruggingly accep-ted: from student loan to mortgage, everyone's in the red. And while the Victorians had the threat of debtors' prisons, we have the escape route of personal bankruptcy. But as credit becomes scarcer, Atwood thinks that the tide is turning: “Once you get TV shows where people are repenting not that they've cheated on their wife but how in debt they are, then you're returning to a mode in which debt is considered sinful, and thrift is valued. Nobody in the Eighties would have been caught dead in recycled clothing, but now vintage is chic.”
If citizens are relearning the arts of thrift, their governments are lagging behind. The Times Square debt clock in New York was switched off in 2000 because the Clinton Government had built up a budget surplus. But when George W. Bush's spending spree began, it was rebooted, and now stands at almost $10 trillion (£5.6 trillion). “Who's going to pay for it?” Atwood asks. “The US taxpayer. They already have - their social services have suffered horribly. But people didn't understand that it was happening. [The invasion of Iraq] was like one of those magician's tricks where somebody is waving a red handkerchief and while everybody's looking at it somebody else is stealing your wallet.” In the fortnight since we met, the pickpocketing has become even more audacious: the multibillion-dollar bailouts of the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the proposed rescue of the insurance group AIG will come straight out of the taxpayer's purse.
But financial debt is not our biggest burden. In writing Payback Atwood became fascinated with a phrase spoken of the dead: “He has paid his debt to nature.” “It means you've borrowed something - the physical part of yourself made up of natural elements - and you're paying it back by dissolving into nature. What else are we borrowing from nature and how do we repay it?” The book's final chapter proposes an answer in strong terms.
It's surprising, I say, to see a novelist - whose usual tools are ambiguity and indirection - produce something so close to polemic. Atwood is convinced that the form demands it: “Lecture series like this are secular sermons. You can't just throw a topic like this on to the table without deciding which part of it you think is good and which is bad.”
The bad part is the way we have treated the planet, and at the moment, there isn't much of a good part in sight. “Early cultures would make sacrifices to ensure a good harvest or whatever. If we don't change our ways the sacrifices will be made for us - and that is already going on, what with droughts, famines and floods. Talk to any epidemiologist and what they're really worried about is a mega-plague coming our way. We're overcrowded and malnourished - the same conditions preceded the Black Death.” It's a distressing vision - even more so when you remember Atwood's impressive track record in prognostication.
If mankind could declare bank-ruptcy and wipe the slate clean, we would. But we can't: instead, Atwood argues, we need to learn to manage our debt, and to pull ourselves back into the black: “We should start thinking of ourselves as elements in the balance, and how we are throwing out the balance. It's not a moral obligation - it's a physical obligation.”