Glorious Outlaws: Debt as a Tool in Contemporary Postcolonial Fiction

by Izabela Morska (Author)
©2016 Monographs 310 Pages


This book addresses debt in postcolonial fiction: financial, social, historical, and cultural. The author examines how literary characters including servants, fallen women, and cultural outsiders pay or refuse to pay the debts imposed upon them, and the consequences of debts paid and unpaid. Working at the intersection of critical race theory, queer theory, feminist theory, and postcolonial studies, the book includes an overturning of the well-established argument about Conrad and race, an examination of the connection between debt and class both historical and contemporary, and direct comparisons between debt in fiction and current issues of debt in the economy world-wide.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction Love Your Debtor, Not Your Debtors’ Prison
  • Chapter 1 Servant’s Betrayal: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
  • Chapter 2 Laughing with Grief: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
  • Chapter 3 Dress Your Dissent in Bright Colors: Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue
  • Chapter 4 The Pedagogy of Rape: Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee and Zanele Muholi
  • Chapter 5 Chinua Achebe and Conrad as the Object of Transference
  • Brief Interlude The Merchant of Venice: The Bond of Melancholia
  • Concluding Remarks How to Write Literary Criticism on Nothing a Year
  • Works Cited
  • Notes
  • Name Index

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Introduction Love Your Debtor, Not Your Debtors’ Prison

“I was one of millions now, an insect toiling beside countless other insects, and every task I performed was part of the great, grinding enterprise of American capitalism. Petroleum was the primary source of wealth, the raw material that fueled the profit machine and kept it running, and I was glad to be where I was, grateful to have landed in the belly of the beast. The refineries where we loaded and unloaded our cargo were enormous, hellish structures, labyrinthine networks of hissing pipes and towers of flame, and to walk through one of them at night was to feel that you are living in your own worst dream. Most of all, I will never forget the fish, the hundreds of dead, iridescent fish floating on the rank, oil-saturated water around the refinery docks. That was the standard welcoming committee, the sight that greeted us every time the tugboats pulled us into another port. The ugliness was so universal, so deeply connected to the business of making money and the power that money bestowed on the ones who made it—even to the point of disfiguring the landscape, of turning the natural world inside out—that I began to develop a grudging respect for it. Get to the bottom of things, I told myself, and this was how the world looked.”

Paul Auster, “The Money Chronicles”

“The organism must be expected to develop, to change, as society does. The organism is not conscious of itself as an organism, a whole, though I think it will soon be. The world is becoming one, and this enables us all to see our many different societies as aspects of a whole, and the parts of those societies shared by them all. If you see writers like this—as a stratum, a layer, a strand, in every country, all so varied, but as together making up a whole, it tends to do away with the frantic competitiveness that is fostered by prizes and so forth. I think that writers everywhere are aspects of each other, aspects of a function that has been evolved by society.”

Doris Lessing, Prisons We Choose to Live Inside

“Joseph Brodsky, Ingeborg Bachmann, Zbigniew Herbert: from lone rafts tossed on the dark seas of Europe they release their words into the air, and along the airwaves the words speed to his room, the words of the poets of his time, telling him again of what poetry can be and therefore of what he can be, filling him with joy that he inhabits the same earth as they. ‘Signal heard in London—please continue to transmit’: that is the message he would send them if he could.”

J. M. Coetzee, Youth

Why Writers?

In Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, a collection of lectures written for the prestigious Massey Series to be delivered in 1985, four years before the fall of the Berlin ← 9 | 10 → Wall, Doris Lessing ponders the purposefulness of writers. She takes as the premise her dismissal of mass emotions, justified by her coming of age in Southern Rhodesia where “democracy was for the white minority,” in addition to her “short-lived” conversion to Communism—deemed “a lunacy,” a quaint response to “a germ or virus” activated by her “rejection of the repressive and unjust society of old, white-dominated Africa” (27). Drawing from this experience—she’s been there, she succumbed, albeit unaware of their pernicious natures, to two great political dangers and discarded them in due course—Lessing proposes that we are all susceptible to political brainwashing “unless we are suffering from certain types of schizophrenia” (35). Yet of all professions, she concedes, writers are “by nature more easily able to achieve detachment from mass emotions and social conditions” (7) and thus more resistant.

The basis for this resistance? Discernment for a writer is a matter of practice: “People who are continually examining and observing become critics of what they examine and observe” (7). Such a notion that writers are to a nation’s necessary self-examination what a psychoanalyst is to an individual’s self-healing process rings of Romantic self-aggrandizement, but Lessing is a practical soul. The ultimate object of scrutiny for writers, Lessing asserts, are societies, their subliminal drives and myths. She proceeds to list political utopias as evidence, starting with More’s Utopia and Campanella’s City of the Sun, conceived as “criticisms of current societies, for you can’t write a utopia in a vacuum” (7). Lessing argues that literature cannot exist in a socially artificial void. The utopias, however, are already an antiquated product: in equal measure political proposals and testimonies of hope displaced (someplace, outside, elsewhere, an ideal country of which we’d be most honored to become citizens), their characters prove less than endowed with multilayered and contradictory emotions. Political dystopias already fare better in this regard—and so do their creators. Orwell comes forth as the prime example of a complex writer figure, willing to offer his own life in the process of collecting extreme experiences if such was the cost of forming his sharply focused, emphatic attentiveness.

Lessing perceives writers as independent commentators and members of a spiritual unity, a monkish-like global order, as she envisions “writers, generally, in every country, as a unity, almost like an organism, which has been evolved by society as a means of examining itself” (7). This task of writers, as much as they are given to understand that “democracy is always precarious and must be fought for,” remains shielded from the public: “Writers, books, novels, are used like this, but they don’t think the attitudes towards writers, literature, reflects this. Not yet” (8). Since it seems to be a writer’s task to give voice to the dispossessed, it would be interesting to examine if writers, whether linked in a manner that is both organic ← 10 | 11 → and holistic or not, whether Keynesian at heart or not, indeed refuse to succumb to the gloss of neoliberalist capitalism, the latter bent on evicting any contrary expressions, deemed failures or public menace, from the public discourse.

Examining the distribution of wealth in the pre-statistical era, Thomas Piketty, in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, unwilling to admit defeat in the face of “an abundance of prejudice and a paucity of fact” (2); that is, the lack of clear statistical data resulting in historical conjectures, proposes to rely on “the intuitive knowledge,” effective when applied to the domain of “contemporary wealth and income levels, even in the absence of any theoretical framework or statistical analysis” (2). Piketty harvests this knowledge from the nineteenth-century novels “of Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac [who] paint striking portraits of the distribution of wealth in Britain and France between 1790 and 1830” (2). Since “[b]oth novelists were intimately acquainted with the hierarchy of wealth in their respective societies” and because “[t]hey grasped the hidden contours of wealth and its inevitable implications for the lives of men and women, including their marital strategies and personal hopes and disappointments” (2), one can choose to read them not for the romance-cum-inheritance plots, but for prices and lists of expenses.

Everyone knew because the “money markers were stable” (106) and well understood by the readers when “in view of very low growth” and absent inflation “these sums reflect very concrete and stable realities” (106). To all appearances, readers “probably found the amounts mentioned by Jane Austen somewhat too small to live comfortably but were not totally confused by them” (106). Thus we receive first-hand information that “the average income was on the order of 30 pounds a year in the early 1800s, when Jane Austen wrote her novels” (106), but “to live comfortably and elegantly, secure proper transportation and clothing, eat well, and find amusement and a necessary minimum of domestic servants, one needed—by her lights—at least twenty to thirty times that much” (106). The income of 500 to 1,000 pounds a year is what Austen’s protagonists inherit, or fail to inherit, or aim to gain through marriage. Meanwhile, the average income, Piketty asserts, by 1850s grew barely to 40–50 pounds a year, to rise to 80–90 pounds a year by the turn of the twentieth century, while “annual incomes of 1,000 pounds or more—the kind that Austen talked about—still marked a significant divide” (106). One could recall other Victorian writers who quote exact numbers when discussing their protagonists’ financial complications, Charles Dickens and George Eliot being particularly ← 11 | 12 → precise in keeping their protagonists’ accounts. Thus, each new generation of readers reached for Austen’s, Dickens’s, and Eliot’s novels with sense of continuity, the readers’ world a direct successor to that of the writers.

The period of narrative stability, of writers publishing novels in serial installments, and of literary characters driven into despair by debts amounting to 200 pounds or so, ended with World War I, since to “pay for this war of extraordinary violence and intensity, to pay for soldiers and for the ever more costly and sophisticated weapons they used, governments went deeply into debt” (106). The interwar period followed, with its wave of inflations, culminating with World War II, which brought more unspeakable wreckage and war debts. Piketty’s diagnosis agrees with Eva Illouz’s observation that “this Western cultural form of modernity has brought about its own form of emotional misery and destruction of traditional life-worlds, has made ontological insecurity a chronic feature of modern lives” (Why Love Hurts cht.1). Reading Piketty alongside Illouz reveals that the modernists’ insecurity’s existential roots drew their nutrients from economic soil. The burdening of countries with unmanageable debt (which the poorest individuals residing in these countries are habitually bound to pay) coincides, not accidentally, with the end of the colonial expansion and the rise of nationalistic movements, as well as with the emerging premonition that the waning “old” world, consisting of “religion community, order, and stability” is being replaced by “breath-taking change, secularity, dissolution of community ties, increasing claims to equality, and a nagging uncertainty about identity” (cht.1). This instability and unpredictability of economic developments, results, according to Piketty, in detailed references to wealth and income gradually “dropp[ing] out of sight between 1914 and 1945 and never truly reemerg[ing]” (109), leading him to the conclusion that, testifying to great changes the world has undergone since the nineteenth century, “[t]his is true not only of European and American novels but also of the literature of other continents” (109). My book will prove Piketty wrong in this matter. Not only do specific references to income, securities, and overall balancing of accounts abound in the latest contemporary novels, but prices, incomes, taxes, bribes, rents, home budgets, and balance sheets (enumerating losses more often than gains, but not without exceptions) appear to be the main imperative for the protagonists’ development, as well as for winding up the action.

Debt-driven Novels for Audiences Struggling with Home Budgets

Indeed, as we look at the novelistic production following the 2008–2009 financial crisis, we cannot help but notice the reemergence of debt as both a theme and a ← 12 | 13 → narrative tool. Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending (Booker Prize of 2011) and the recent literary phenomenon, Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey (2015), both present their protagonists as haunted by an unacknowledged moral debt, a tangled knot of love and betrayal. Donna Tartt in The Secret History (1992) and The Goldfinch (2014) burdens her protagonists with the “negative heritage” of their indolent families (parents in The Secret History; father in The Goldfinch) only to throw an uncouth lad into a milieu of mythically rich kids, following with an assortment of odd characters whose incomes come from undisclosed sources (The Secret History). The magic occurring in Tartt’s novels is not magical realism, but annuls misery with its arrival, with the help of money, as when Boris, a con-man with a heart of gold, decides to share the police reward for a stolen painting with Theo, the troubled antique dealer, thus dispelling the pressure of blackmail threatening Theo from a malicious buyer (The Goldfinch). The reader may then, with a sigh of relief, conclude that it makes sense to pay one’s debts, even investing some time and effort in the task, if only for the sake of one’s sanity.

Gillian Flynn in all her novels so far, Sharp Objects (2006), Dark Places (2009), and Gone Girl (2012), employs the rudimentary brutality of human relations as fabric for a mystery novel plot. Tightened by economy and additionally exploited by random sociopaths, this fabric stretches beyond endurance, ultimately leading to murder and other ruthless acts, striking in their mercilessness, yet not surpassing our daily reality of high payoffs to maladroit executives from maverick banks and ruthless debt collecting strategies, the reality structured by the World Bank, the IMF, European Central Bank, and the European Commission. Compared to the narratives of financial pacification of debtor nations, a mystery novel offers a murder story usually limited to a couple of victims, controlling, containing, solving, and explaining the horror.

The ravaged landscape marked by bankruptcies, foreclosures, and unemployment punctuate the narrative of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Its hapless protagonist, the acutely ordinary Nick Dunne, doomed to discern only too late that his wife is a sociopath, hopes to find answers to her disappearance in the now-defunct mall, the closure of which has created unemployment and dangerous resentment within the rural Missouri community where he and his wife, Amy, live. Readying himself to brave the wild tales about the Blue Book Boys, the laid-off, disposed-of workers from the paper factory, Nick recalls how his mother landed her first job at the newly opened mall; he remembers her pride at working in a shoe store, despite her children’s dismay. Nothing prepares him for the gutted structure of the formerly bustling shopping center:


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (February)
Postcolonial Studies Joseph Conrad Michael Chabon J. M. Coetzee Feminist Theory Emma Donoghue
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 310 pp.

Biographical notes

Izabela Morska (Author)

Izabela Morska is the author of several books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. She is a former ISEEES Visiting Scholar and BBRG Affiliated Scholar at the University of California-Berkeley, and a Yaddo, Hawthornden, and Iowa International Writers’ Workshop Fellow. She teaches at the English Department of Gdańsk University, Poland.


Title: Glorious Outlaws: Debt as a Tool in Contemporary Postcolonial Fiction