This essay review of Margaret Atwood's Payback centers on the observation that the book does not dwell on the unnatural face of interest and finance. In this era of financialization, debt has been thoroughly uncoupled from the concept of payback. The least valuable debt is the one that is promptly repaid. It is this aspect of debt—the interest, not the principal—that has attracted the richest tradition of social condemnation. As stable forms of production and exchange were replaced by international arbitrage, the link between debt and sorcery became evident to observers around the world. More profoundly, Atwood's widely shared commonsense impression that consumer debt is a measure of self-indulgence does not hold up empirically. It turns out that our unprecedented levels of household indebtedness were overwhelmingly a function of nondiscretionary spending. Even as Americans owed one hundred percent of GDP in individual debt in 2008, the real Faustian bargain was not a “enjoy now, pay later” scheme for “glitzy, short-term junk.” The truth is much scarier, and points toward a different set of cultural and theological references than the ones Atwood investigates. The dividing line between solvency and insolvency, it turns out, is not consumption but reproduction: the most certain route to financial disaster is having a child.

You do not currently have access to this content.