Look Who’s Watching

Quotients BY Tracy O'Neill. New York: Soho Press. 392 pages. $26.
Tracy O’Neill. Photo: Oskar Miarka

So, where does Quotients, this big, multilayered novel, come from?

Quotients is about people trying to build homes and find shelter in family, when they feel that the world is place full of peril. This was a preoccupation in my own life. Then, I met a man who said he’d once been a spy. Spying is motivated by a desire to keep some “us” safe through gathering information and forming predictions, but it introduces danger, too. It’s predicated on the fear that things may not be what they appear to be, but it also weaponizes misinformation. I thought that the spy as a figure represented something of the zeitgeist.

Around the time I started writing the book, I had begun a Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia, so I was thinking about issues in media and telecom, the way technologies influence our public life. I began writing this book after the Snowden revelations and after the Judith Miller scandal, so I was thinking about the tension between privacy and truth-telling in our pursuit of a safer world.

People have been attentive to the role of digital systems of surveillance in Quotients, but I was also interested in old-fashioned, day-to-day, person-watching-person spying. To me, some of the most important instances of surveillance in the book are those when parents are under surveillance. There are moments in the novel when family members, school administrators, and strangers watch over mothers and fathers. And there is some snooping between romantic partners.

We’re conducting this interview via email during the pandemic when almost all of us are staying home. You use the word “shelter” here and go on to discuss family and home and safety. I’m curious about your relationship to these elements both before COVID and now during COVID. What does home mean to you now and what did it mean to you growing up? Has our current circumstances affected any thoughts on home and shelter and safety? Do you see connective tissue between your first novel, The Hopeful, and Quotients when it comes to these ideas?

Both books look at characters who are not at home in their own skin, so to speak. And the idea that home can afford the safe space of privacy and concealed danger is a commonality in the two books. For a long time, I’ve been interested in how we sometimes build up secrets to fortify home or our place in a home, and how often these efforts undermine our intentions.

In Quotients, the characters look at home on various scales: the domestic unit, the nation, online enclaves, places of work. So, sometimes the dangers are a family secret. Other times, they’re covert state violence. These characters are desperate for intimacy, yet their homes are precarious, and they feel that. But Quotients is more attuned than The Hopeful to the ways that the ideals of openness, connection, and freedom to express oneself can be exploited or perverted.

To me, COVID-19 makes obvious some of the paradoxes of home today. We often think about home as a manageable pocket where one can retreat. These are places where the risk of virus contagion is smaller. But under lockdown, the dangers of home are acute for people who experience domestic or family abuse, we can have dangerous misinformation deposited in our home via the internet, we may be riddled with the anxieties of the news as we’re pinged throughout the day on devices, and our digital lives can be watched by private companies and intelligence agencies—or people we know.

Right now, students forced into remote learning have to grapple with the fact that their teachers and classmates can snap pictures or record Zoom sessions, then share them. Imagine: you’re thinking about participating in class, but if you give the wrong answer, a video of it can end up online somewhere. Imagine: you’re thinking about logging into class, but you don’t know if someone will post a picture later of your drunk brother passed out in the small apartment where your family resides. Of course these dangers are going to chill the conversations that are fundamental to education. But kids and people working from home don’t have a real choice to opt out. Now home is a place expected to be open to public view in a way people may not feel comfortable with.

There’s also the relationship between social media and law enforcement. Zoom came under fire recently for saying that they did not want to give users the privacy of encryption because they wanted to continue working with the FBI. So what does that mean for people who want to use technologies to discuss fixing systemic problems in criminal justice?

I’m always interested in writers moving from book to book. Was writing a second novel in any way easier? The architecture of Quotients is quite different, of course, given that we have a large cast of characters.

Easier? No. There was an early, stupid terror that I’d somehow spent all my ideas on the first go, and now I would not be able to write another book. But I decided that if I was going to try again, I wanted to tell a very different story, try things I had not in the first.

The Hopeful sustains an almost claustrophobic adherence to the first-person narrator Ali’s consciousness, with a frame around each chapter to advance two timelines throughout the novel. What I like about that approach is the centripetal force generated by the single voice.

But writing a “bigger” novel allowed me to experiment with how the characters of Quotients sounded in their own minds, in their own private chatter. I didn’t need to rely on them saying what they meant or the narrator surmising the thoughts of others with acuity. I could create patterns of thought across characters that, though stylistically different, rhymed with each other, suggesting that, paradoxically, the reason the characters often fail in their connections with each other is shared.

Let’s talk about the form of the novel and the short fragmented chapters. We have parts of the book that are further broken down into fleeting chapters. How did you arrive at this form?

Initially the chapters were enormous. I’d gotten it in my head that each chapter would formally represent a TIDE, TIDE being a database maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center. I wanted the reader to feel overwhelmed by this data, which was, in retrospect, not very clever. I adore Don DeLillo, and I was thinking about “Pafko at the Wall,” the beginning of Underworld—but I couldn’t keep panning over characters in the same way because my characters weren’t gathered by a single spectacle; their attention was turned into themselves.

I dispensed with a lot of the “logistical” writing—transitions in time, place, consciousness—which, by the way, is something Jane Austen does to a degree. The chapters became shorter, as in Joan Didion’s political novels. I began thinking about each chapter as a datum rather than a formal TIDE. My intention was to represent the breadth of the internet and the sort of restless attention of the internet age with its low-grade hum of anxiety.

This low-grade hum of anxiety and restless attention of the internet age is a big part of the relationship between Jeremy and Alexandra. It seems as though both characters are always on devices and communicating through these devices. I’m curious to hear your thoughts about technology and modern relationships.

This is an enormous question which merits books upon books upon books, but I’ll say that I wanted to register complexity in the depiction of telecom technologies in our lives. Our difficult task is to negotiate a tension: they offer real possibilities for connection and security—and damage.

In the book I include several real events, one of which is the police slaying of Mark Duggan, a black man. After Duggan’s death, the Tottenham protests lit through social media. More protesters were caught using social media photos than CCTV, supposedly, and BlackBerry’s parent company gave the police information. So on the one hand, we can see how videos of police brutality have helped us in efforts to document police brutality and anti-blackness, yet the same devices that help hold law enforcement to account may be what provides the police with tools to identify and in some cases arrest protesters.

Today, we’re weighing how something like the “It Gets Better” campaign serves queer youth, who may struggle to find allies in their communities, against the online proliferation of extremists, who might also have struggled to find allies in their communities, to give just one example. These technologies offer the ability to connect, but they also create the feeling of being ever-watched, ever-quantified, and ever-assessed, which can chill our speech and prevent real connection.

On a more intimate scale, in Quotients, I wanted to render some of these moments when technology-as-connector or technology-as-danger flash. So there’s a scene where Alexandra enjoys the happiness of hearing Jeremy’s voice in a voicemail when they can’t be together, but there are also moments the characters are alienated by the online personas of those they love. There are moments when smartphones distract from the real possibilities for togetherness, and there are those in which social media offers comfort when a character’s intimates do not.

In this book, I also wanted to represent a problem I think has been exacerbated in a hyper-wired time: the sense that your very self has become an object outside you that anyone can see and assess—and therefore must be controlled. You know, personal brands. This is not a problem caused by technology, but it’s been intensified by platforms that have encouraged us to equate connection with performing the self in the digital public. I think many feel performance anxiety as a result, and that can imbue social life with negative emotion. Jeremy and Alexandra are sometimes so keyed into how they will be perceived, they don’t fully register their own emotions or have a sense of who they are.

What’s next for you?

I have a memoir idea and an idea for a novel or two. But for now, I’m writing essays until I get over my Quotients hangover.

Robert Lopez is the author of the story collection Good People (Bellevue Literary Press, 2016) and the novel All Back Full (Dzanc Books, 2017).