That’s not excitement, that’s the sound of the alarm panel for “fire and security” that is yelling on the other side of my wall. For the second day in a row, mind you, and just during work hours.

It’s making it a bit hard to concentrate. They couldn’t have come tomorrow when I’m working out of the house?

I am currently reading Margaret Atwood’s Payback, which is an interesting exploration about the meaning and history of debt. She touches on our animal, chimpanzee constructions of debt and fairness; examines  how debt, fairness, and justice have been described in religion and mythology; and shows how our perspectives on debt as spiritual, moral, or financial have swung over centuries in our stories, touching on Faust and Dickens and Hardy. And she talks about finance.

In the early days of my reading, I was not an Atwood fan. Cat’s Eye and Edible Woman both annoyed me, and when I complained to my mother she agreed that of the Canadian Margarets, Laurence was her preferred author. (And man, do I love me some Laurence.)

But then I went through an “all dystopias all the time” phase and loved Handmaid’s Tale. So I waited for Atwood to write More Like That, and there has since been a book I’ve loved, a book I’ve gritted my teeth at, and a few books I don’t remember much. I’ve never been sure what is up with my opinion of Atwood: it’s swung wildly, which is unexpected. Generally, I can see a writer I like through the wobbly books and the good ones, and I have a fairly consistent expectation regarding how I’ll react before I open the front pages.

This series of essays has made me clear on why I react to Atwood the way I do.  She appears to like the same stew recipe of human activity and meaning that I like: a few cups of literature and mythology, all the major religions chopped into consituent structures, and a broth made of one part biological research and one part psychological research. Simmer your obervation in this mix until the meat falls away for flavour and the bones are revealed.

But we have a difference in perspective about free will and the inner life. Our inner mythologies have very different lighting, costumes and set construction, which is why I have had a hard time identifying with her characters. She is telling foreign stories in an accent I understand.

As an essayist, however, that disconnection has been very helpful. This is book is a challenge, because her perspective is not where I view from, but it is interesting. If I disagree with her, it’s mainly in the matter of weight of an observation – but her difference in weighting itself is something complex and tricky to think about. What does it mean that I weight one mythology more heavily than she does?

So I’ve been enjoying myself mightily and feeling like a student, and recommend the book to anyone who cares about such things as the repeated human structure behind our everyday interactions.

(However, be prepared for her to frown in your direction if your credit cards are heavily used.)


  1. So what’s the difference between your perspectives on free will and the inner life?? Geez, you leave out the most interesting parts. Or are you trying to get me to read Atwood and then see if I can’t figure it out myself? I promise you, I am WAY too lazy to do that, especially since I believe I can goad you into doing it for me.

  2. I think that the books of Atwood that I DON’T like tend to be incredibly well written personal dystopias.
    I am comfortable with a protagonist struggling and defeated learning to love an external Big Brother.
    I am angry with one who looks at their internal Big Brother and names it and cuddles it and then doesn’t at least try to overthrow it or kill it with broadswords.

    I can like, but not necessarily be deeply affected, with the story of a character where the arc is them being driven around by their damage, because they’re not (to me) doing anything particularly notable (to me).

    Atwood is more interested in the details of neurosis, and she describes beautifully the intricate architecture supporting it, and she appears to accept the inevitability of the great war between superego and id and all the neurotic structures that that war creates.
    I’m more of a romantic, I s’pose. I grump at her and ask her when the swordfight is going to start: smash the neurotic state and get down to some heavy diplomacy, woman, there’s no need for it.

    She’s likely more pragmatically correct than I am, but I imagine I’ll go down fighting.

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