The Ever-Present Feeling of Being Watched: Tracy O’Neill Interviewed by Nicole Treska

On writing a systems novel that accommodates a diverse cast of characters and the concerns of our hyper-digital times.

Tracy O Cover

Tracy O’Neil’s debut novel, The Hopeful, earned her the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award. Her sophomore work, Quotients (SoHo Press), is an ambitious tour de force: a spy narrative, a love story, a family saga, and a systems novel as complex and fast-moving as the times. Quotients exudes an extra-prescience as it arrives in this political moment steeped in deeply divisive media distrust. It follows Jeremy Jordan and Alexandra Chen as they navigate their relationship with one another and with their troubled pasts. Jeremy is hiding his life as a British spy working in Northern Ireland during The Troubles; Alexandra is mired in a complicated relationship with her brother, Shel, and his complicated relationship with national security, data collection, and counterterrorism. The novel centers on the idea of contemporary paranoia. The characters in Quotients are always watching and being watched, exploring the nature of secrecy in both the personal and political spheres. Quotients navigates our global and personal identities in the age of social media, expansive government control, and big surveillance. Every character is doing their own math, but is it to be trusted? Are the numbers good? 

—Nicole Treska


Nicole Treska How did you conceive of the sprawling structure of Quotients? The division equation of the sections, recurring chapter numbers, character’s rapidly evolving secrets, and the so-short chapters.

Tracy O’NeillOh, you know, I wrung my hands a bit. I crossed out a lot. Initially, I tried to organize the book in very long chapters to formally mimic the notion of the TIDE, the NSA’s Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment. Later, my editor Mark Doten asked me to consider cutting the manuscript down. In the final revision, the shift was from the data TIDE to data bytes as the formal unit or the structural principle of the chapters. I was looking to exact a great deal of compression within chapters while maintaining a hint of the TIDE in the full run of the book. I cut something like 75,000 words. 

Before that, though, I’d already come up with the book’s titled sections spelling out a division equation, which is meant to be suggestive. We begin with “Dividend,” the number that’s divided, and that’s where we meet Jeremy and Alexandra. It’s also where a plot arc begins involving global finance, so that title is a bit of a winking gesture. By the end, we’re left at “Remainder,” what’s left after the primary events of the novel have unfurled. 

NT Alexandra and Jeremy, and most of the other characters, are caught doing “a math of fates”, trying to engineer better futures than the ones they’re likely to have. But there is a remainder, things aren’t neat. Their best efforts fail to make them whole. Why do we believe we can change the odds? And why do we fail?

TO A fat grip of the world today has grown up with the notion that character is destiny, and moreover, it can be difficult to get out of bed in the morning if you don’t have faith you can change the odds. Why do we fail though? That’s a question people spend lifetimes answering.  

NT I’d like to talk about the gender expectations for you as an Asian-American woman writing fiction “like this”—a systems novel in the vein of DeLillo and Wallace which explores the empty or false security of capitalism and culture. Do you think this is a book you were expected to write? 

TO No, I don’t. Historically, there’s been an aura of presumptive whiteness around the systems novel to the extent that in one widely cited piece by John Freeman, it was argued that “the end of the systems novel is a good thing because it is a chance to remind American readers that the most interesting things often happen at the margin.” I appreciate Freeman’s critique and his celebration of stories at the margins, but I haven’t given up on it. I think the systems novel can accommodate a cast of characters as diverse as the world we live in.  

If the systems novel has traditionally been associated with stories told by white men, perhaps it’s because too often it’s been assumed that books by women of color centering on racialized pain, especially in the private sphere, are the sum of what women of color are capable of—when of course we have more stories to tell—rather than an inherent incompatibility between the systems novel and the requirements of representing life at the margins. I see the problem as less about this story form than a view in which our primary recommendation is construed as “authenticity.”

NT As though you couldn’t write beyond what you’ve experienced.

TO Sure, except that of course I and other women of color do experience internet culture, surveillance capitalism, digital surveillance, and so on. We didn’t receive passes on these aspects of contemporary life for being women of color.  

In Quotients, it was important for me to get at the varied textures of surveillance. There’s the larger plot involving intelligence operations, but there are also moments in which Alexandra Chen muses on how her ethnicity is interrogated, when we see her queer best friend trying to negotiate between her desire for online privacy and her girlfriend’s sense that sharing their personal life is important to her politics. We see it when a mother attempting to weigh the data-driven predictions of a school program for at-risk children and her sense that at-risk may be a euphemism that pathologizes black boys. For me, the systems novel was capacious enough to capture this diversity of information-age life.

Tracy Oneill Credit Oskar Miarka 1

Photo of Tracy O’Neill by Oskar Miarka.

NTWe also see distrust in the media by way of Lyle, the CUNY journalist who decides which story to tell by cynically considering “who is worth a story.” To Lyle, the story is whatever will sell.  

TO Lyle wants desperately to be recognized, and he’s wrapped up in the potential to be recognized by our culture. It’s difficult for him to disentangle what he thinks is a valuable story from an internalized sense of the metrics. I have immense regard for many journalists, but it’s also been challenging for media to reconcile capitalism’s need to generate clicks and views, the internet’s normalization of free content, the new attention economy, the costliness of reporting, and the public good.  

NT Every relationship in this book includes codes and languages. The characters teach each other the codes they need to read or understand one other. At one point, Alexandra is trying to “read” her adopted son, Han, like an accumulation of data that might lead to a knowing. Does data equal knowledge? 

TO No. What Alexandra’s brother Shel wants to convey to other characters in the novel is that data are not facts; data are tiny editorialized units with scalable consequences.

NT And Alexandra thinks he’s crazy—the sane guy always reads as crazy.

TO Right, she’s invested in the notion that American democracy has solved the problem of fairness, so it’s difficult for her to admit when that is not the case.

NT Can you talk about Shel and Jeremy’s differing perspectives on terror as an avenue to political change or power in the book?  

TO Early on, Jeremy believes that people can be frightened into doing the right thing. That changes for him. Shel doesn’t think about terrorism as much as he thinks about being terrified of the people working in counterterrorism.

NT Your first novel, The Hopeful, and much of your earlier writing deals with sports, and sports journalism, ice skating in particular. Quotients feels like both a formal and thematic departure. How did you find your way into this second novel, about the IRA, surveillance, and data collection? 

TO I met a man who said he’d been a spy. I was interested in how that experience would reverberate in someone’s emotional life. This was after the Snowden revelations. After we found out telecom companies were giving away customer data. It was far after the Stephen Glass scandal, after Judith Miller, after we learned of the fabrications we’d been told about WMDs. It was after supposedly safe financial instruments had been proven subject to risk, and the subprime mortgage crisis mowed away the path to conventional adulthood for many people of my generation. It was after it had come out that Target could, with a bit of data-mining, know you were pregnant before you told anyone, that you could be outed by your internet searches.

I was looking around and thinking how frayed trust was in every facet of contemporary life. How the ever-present feeling of being watched meant that the performance of our public-facing selves had fewer breaks than it once did. I was thinking that of course the consequences were shifts in how we love, how we make homes, how we form families, how we understand what is true, how we think about danger. The story of a former intelligence operative who is hyper-aware of being seen, who is attuned to risk, who considers disinformation and being found out to be always a possibility—it seemed to me that this was synecdochic for our shared narrative. In this character I could draw out how the ironic attempts to make ourselves safer often lead to less safety. 

NT Having spent so much time thinking about surveillance and technology, what are your fears about how America might move through the national and global crisis brought on by coronavirus? How much more frayed has our trust become in the last month?   

TO I think about how after 9/11 our civil liberties were trampled on under the banner of emergency. This makes me nervous as hell for what happens during this pandemic. Concerns about digital privacy already needed to be addressed before COVID-19, and now as our lives increasingly move online, we have learned that Zoom, for example, shares our data with Facebook, even if we aren’t Facebook users. Kids are doing online learning, and we need to worry about what’s happening to their data when opting out isn’t really much of a choice if it means relinquishing education. 

Then there are the immediate concerns about misinformation, exacerbated by rapidly shifting information. Probably many of us love people who have referred to coronavirus news as “media hysteria,” who thought glove use was a symptom of paranoia. Perhaps at some point early on, they’d heard coronavirus was like the flu then stopped reading the news, in part out of information fatigue that predates the virus. Or perhaps they believed that the early accounts were the correct information and construed later reports as incorrect. We were told early on that we didn’t need masks; now we are told we should wear them. It’s not surprising some people chalk up the warnings to exaggeration or lies. 

NT Can you talk a little about Cathexis? What it is, how it’s used? 

TO It’s basically the Facebook of the novel. The name comes from psychoanalysis, cathexis being is the process in which a person, object, idea, is imbued with emotional energy, too much emotional energy. 

NT Alexandra and Jeremy want to think of themselves as a good advertisement for marriage; they see their friends in real life and on Cathexis performing family, and wonder how they would stack up. 

TO Yes. Both of these characters are living toward received images of conventionality. For Alexandra, it’s romantic. It’s an investment in the notion that you can choose for your life to be more expansive than your screwed-up childhood, that you can get away, that you can snatch up the picture of “how to be” off a shelf and minimize the hurt. To Jeremy, who’s lived a clandestine life as an operative, performativity is the only way he knows how to be anymore. But the paradox is that performing the conventions makes these characters feel closer to mastering safer, solid selfhood. There’s pleasure in it, comfort.

NT Alexandra works as a PR/advertising consultant rehabilitating the images of countries and corporations. “She could distill the senses therapists worry about, clean pathos, make it useful.”

TO Shilling makes her feel powerful. She doesn’t necessarily care what she’s selling. Alexandra was the character I had the most difficultly empathizing with.

NT Was it difficult to write a protagonist with whom you struggled to empathize?  

TO I needed to really zoom in on her hopefulness about forming a relationship with her brother, Shel. I needed to fall into her desire to make the family she never had, rather than fixating on her work alone.  

NT For a book that was so highly researched, I’m curious, what was the most interesting piece of information you discovered that didn’t make it into the book?

TO I was shocked to discover how many people are working in intelligence. The true numbers are classified, but in 2010 the Washington Post reported that 854,000 people had top-secret security clearance in the United States. 

NT So, when I assume everyone is a spy … there’s a decent chance I might be right. 

Quotients is available for purchase here.

Nicole Treska is a writer and professor living in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York Tyrant Magazine, Epiphany Magazine, Egress: New Openings in Literary Arts, Tweed’s Magazine, and The Coffin Factory, among others. Her interviews and reviews are up at Guernica, The Millions, The Rumpus, The Brooklyn Rail, and The Common. She is at work on a story collection and a novel.

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