Anxious satisfaction is the modern condition that drives us to scroll endlessly through news sites in search of answers at all angles. No novel I’ve read has quite grasped this feeling than Tracy O’Neill’s sophomore novel Quotients. By its nature, it is a novel of secrets that both tick away like concealed bombs and tickle the part of the brain stimulated by the drive to reveal them. Smart and deep, an easy elevator pitch would be to imagine a family drama written by Edward Snowden. In the hands of a writer like O’Neill, we get something more ambitious: the first great novel of the post-Wikileaks era.
At its broadest, Quotients tells the story of Jeremy Jordan and Alexandra Chen, a young couple trying, and failing, to extradite themselves from the underbelly of foreign contractors, government intelligence, and espionage operations they both come from in order to settle into nuclear family life. Of course, you can’t unknow things, and as the book accounts, willful ignorance isn’t a cocoon, it’s a charade. So is any idea of normalcy. Along with uncanny fringe figures that destabilize Jeremy and Alexandra’s serenity, the novel includes characters who are just trying to get by in a system that works against them. O’Neill deftly networks her plot through kinetic and axiomatic prose that detonates on the page.
O’Neill’s first novel, The Hopeful, about a figure skating prodigy’s attempt to qualify for the Winter Olympics, was long-listed for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and selected as one of Electric Literature’s Best Novels of 2015. She is the an honoree of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 and her byline can be found in distinguished publications such as the New Yorker and Granta.
I was due to meet O’Neill, whose dramatic chiaroscuro author photo compliments the atmosphere of her novel, over coffee for an in-person interview. In light of the coronavirus quarantine, our exchange took place over email. Asides such as Tiger King references and observations of airplanes passing overhead have been left out.
THE BELIEVER: Part of the pleasure of reading Quotients is seeing a narrative gestalt form from its many ticking parts. When you first started working on it, did you have in mind a system or an epic or did it grow from a few seeds?
TRACY O’NEILL: At the risk of chicken-egging, both really. You could say that I was beginning with a form, a maxim, a mechanism. I was thinking about how often it is precisely our endeavors to keep safe that make us unsafe, how often our drive to cultivate safer circles undermines the desire for intimacy and robust sociality. And this phenomenon would be instantiated in the plotlines of the characters who together would sketch out the system, characters in intelligence, in finance, in journalism, in law, in advertising, in medicine, in education, in home repair, in social work. I’d met a guy who was or said he’d once been a spy, and I saw this form, maxim, mechanism in him that operated on the scale of our entire society, or else I assimilated him into this form, maxim, mechanism that I already observed. I began the novel attempting to elaborate the textures of this paradox, from the personal to the political.
BLVR: These ideas seem markedly different than the themes of dashed dreams and trauma that run in your debut novel The Hopeful. But maybe not? Do you see continuity in the ideas you are interested in exploring in your work?
TO: I do. Jeremy, the former Intelligence Corps handler in Quotients, has sought a sense of purpose and meaning in that work, has harbored a vague but powerful impulse to make the world different in some way. That’s true of Ali, the protagonist of The Hopeful too. They’re both looking for a blueprint to start over, and realizing there are no footprints in the snow. I obsess over obsessives obsessing over failure, and I think this has been a prominent feature in my fiction.
BLVR: There are histories and secrets that the two main protagonists, a couple, keep from each other, both in the personal lives and in their professional encounters. But as I was reading this novel, it felt not like this was a story of their lives narrated, but rather their lives documented. Almost like the reader is meant to be surveilling them. Was this intentional?
TO: I’m tempted to suggest that documenting is a form of narrating, but what’s more to the point is that I wanted the reader to initially receive something like data bytes on these characters, for the reader to watch them pile up and be drawn into a process of putting them together, trying to discover what the “real” story is, not unlike an intelligence analyst. It was important to me that the reader become a little complicit and experience the impulse to make information safer or more manageable, which is the logic that motivates surveillance.
BLVR: This novel is initially backdropped by the events of 7/7, the catastrophic coordinating terrorist bombing of the London tube and proceeds with a cloak and dagger narrative with Alexandra and Jordan, both with ties to government intelligence, at its center. But in committing to each other, they are also actively trying to leave the clandestine world of intelligence behind for something far more normal. Was whether they had a choice something that interested you?
TO: Absolutely. So often the way that writers of narrative prose discuss story pools around human agency. Good stories are supposed to be the ones that draw us into acts of choice, and good characters are, we’re told, the ones who choose. Quotients is a novel that looks to trouble that assumption. Jeremy and Alexandra can choose. They do. But those choices are constrained by the systems of their historical moment and the movements of other individuals; their power as individual actors is up against power that in an age of mass surveillance and globalization has scaled to troubling immensity. They often buy in, and even when they wish to opt out, they struggle to find the edges of systems that have fingers in nearly every facet of life. And they are not in an even match with Big Data.
BLVR: I’m intrigued by what you said about human agency and wanting to trouble what a good story is meant to do. When you were developing Quotients were there books or writers that informed your approach?
TO: Borges isn’t particularly hot on elaborating characters’ ruminations on choice and not incidentally attracted to spy narratives. That’s the case also in Didion’s political novels. I read Tree of Smoke at some point when I was writing the first draft, and I loved it. I read HHhH. And then there’s the mysteriousness of intention Morrison permits at turns in Sula.
BLVR: The cast of characters that revolve around the couple are numerous and elusive, people who go under different aliases, appear and disappear at random, or refuse to play by the rules. DeLillo has that great line, “they want to give themselves, ‘in whispers,’ to someone standing in the shadows.” Tell me what went into the conception for some of these characters. Why does no one seem to trust anyone else?
TO: I love that line. A lot of these characters believe that if they just pass a particular threshold, then they will be able to trust. They will get married, they will reunite with family, they will reach a particular level of success, they will solve a particular plot, and then, then finally they can rest, they can love easily, they can feel safe.
We often imagine one’s ability to trust as a psychological effect stemming from the family unit, but I wanted to move past a paradigm of parents fucking up their children into the psychocultural. For me, one way to do that was exploring parenthood.
Miss Owens, one character, has watched her husband brutalized by the war in Afghanistan, seen plenty of victims of violent crime at the hospital where she works, known too many children abused by adults and women violated by men. She is also aware that she is living in a country where racial privilege deposits unevenly, so that how she is seen as a mother and how her son is seen as a boy is precarious. She is skeptical of corporations selling them food that does not nourish. She is wary of drug companies pushing prescriptions with freaky side effects. Miss Owens has a wonderful family, but she is a woman who does not trust the world to love her family as she does.
BLVR: It was eerie to read this book during another crisis. Your book has calendric elements, not only 7/7, but a chapter near the end that all but summarizes 2014 in fact and in the fiction of the novel. “This was the year that ___” I can’t help but think of how years from now, we’ll be able to say “This was the year that we all quarantined for Coronavirus.” But you seem particularly interested in timelines. If so, how do they inspire and influence your work?
TO: Perhaps this answer is a bit redundant, but I understand our emotional lives to be knitted with our historical moment. I don’t buy that they’re merely matters of individual psychology. So events of the public sphere inform the privates lives of the novel’s characters. These days, we speak of little other than the anxieties stemming from COVID-19. In Quotients, the paranoia is connected to mass surveillance, terrorist events, revelations of misinformation in the media, police brutality, data manipulation, so on, as much as it is tied to personal relationships.
BLVR: There is a sort of coding in the form of Quotients, hinted at by the title. It’s written in 10 parts that are mathematically named and laid out in a seeming algorithm of chapters. Is there more to this than meets the eye or am I just being conspiratorial?
TO: Not conspiratorial at all! If you follow the titles of these parts, they essentially index a division equation. I’m asking the reader to think about what drives us apart and what the result or consequence of division is. As dour as it sounds, there’s some playfulness there too. The first part, for example, is called “Dividend,” which is both the number that will be divided and a play on Jeremy’s work at a hedge fund when we first meet him. A later part is called “Modulo Operation,” which is how a computer finds the remainder and is a chapter in which the characters are trying to figure out what’s left of their lives, that is, what’s the remainder after what they’ve known has been blown apart.
BLVR: Do you find it easier to absorb historical facts into your fiction or to make up situations from scratch?
TO: Frankly, I don’t believe anyone makes much of anything up from scratch. I believe the world informs the work and the work, you hope, informs the world. But I’m happiest with my writing when I’m curious to the details of the world.