(Soho Press, 2020)
It seems more than slightly ironic to be reviewing a novel that includes heavy critique of our reliance on social media in the midst of a pandemic that leaves many of us only able to communicate with others through technology. For some of those who love us, our presence has become only words or images on a screen (I stayed off Facebook for a day and a long-time friend called to make sure I’m still alive). For the young couple in Tracy O’Neill’s new novel Quotients, technology is both friend and foe, both connecting and separating; the layers we all build over our own core selves (online identities, aliases, avatars) become central to the struggle to maintain their relationship. Jeremy Jordan and Alexandra Chen are successful, attractive, and in love. They marry at Alexandra’s suggestion and move from London to New York so she can take a job at a Facebook-like social media platform called Cathexis. Jeremy leaves a lucrative finance job to follow Alexandra to New York and becomes a social worker. But really, those are just cover stories. Jeremy is an ex-spy (English intelligence stationed in Belfast with all the brutality that involves) and Alexandra is really just trying to find her missing half-brother Shel who ran away when he was 13. The novel is a long, circuitous and often incredibly wordy meditation on love, life, parenthood, family, the lies we tell, technology, and the brutal machinations of global intelligence and terror.
Quotients has a cast of supporting characters that includes a former (is he really retired?) spy, Alexandra’s hyper-paranoid brother (is he really a spy or just ill?), a young Black man struggling to survive, a failed online investigative journalist, a successful academic, a friend or two, and the charmingly distracting Han—Alexandra, and Jeremy’s adopted son. The interactions between Jeremy and Han are some of the high points of the novel, allowing Jeremy to exhibit a tender humanity that isn’t always present in his other interactions. The power of the domestic scenes made me impatient with the larger systemic critique in which the novel engages. This is a system critique on the level of Thomas Pynchon, Philip K. Dick, or William Gibson, featuring bad-guy spies (whether Jeremy qualifies as a “bad guy” is up for debate), global financiers, and deep-web hackers. There are men who name drop the NSA, the IRA, and actual or only perceived links between data, privacy, and terror. While I was reading and desperately trying to keep track of the various plot lines, characters, hints of connections, I remained focused on just what all of it meant for the domestic life of Jeremy, Alexandra, and baby Han. Because ultimately, that’s what’s important–the love between partners, between parents and children. There is high evil being done on a daily basis, government agencies and operatives lie, cheat, and enact terror from every side but really, I wanted to read about the choo-choo train Han was making out of paper; I wanted to know how Han was learning English (he speaks none when he’s first adopted); the world may be drowning in darkness and deceit but parents still read bedtime stories to their children.
In a recent interview, O’Neill focuses on the paradigm of what she calls “watchedness”—the state of watching and being watched; a state many of us find ourselves in right now. The novel’s critique of internet privacy is of course vital and current, but so is the notion that all of us, everywhere are watching and being watched—all the time. Living in a city on lockdown, where we are encouraged to report our neighbors who may not be practicing “safe social distancing” and where we are encouraged to self-isolate, to only connect through technology, makes O’Neill’s critique seem almost soft. And perhaps that’s why I’m so drawn to the interaction between Jeremy and his baby son, Han. The transcendent awe Jeremy expresses when Han first moves to hug him one night, the intense protection Jeremy expresses, the joy that comes from this particular type of love.
The book is split into ten sections each containing small chapters, what O’Neill calls “data bytes” which, while providing necessary information and contributing to the overall atmosphere of the novel, can also be frustrating to the reader trying to carefully follow complex narratives—this is not an easy book to read. Of course, the constant shifts in language and narrative add to the atmosphere of unease. The novel opens with the July 7, 2005 terror attacks in London; Jeremy is thinking about Alexandra and then, suddenly, is unable to reach her. Shifts in technology over the course of the novel (2005–2014) are clear, though not clumsy: in 2005, the iPhone has not yet been invented and characters struggle to connect, turning to the television news for information on the bombings. The novel ends in 2014 in a world utterly changed by technology. O’Neill cites global internet usage at around 50 percent but it’s clear she sees technology as both a connective and destructive influence on the ways many of us live and love. The secrets Jeremy and Alexandra keep from each other damage their relationship, themselves, and their ability to care for Han: you cannot build a solid, loving family on a foundation of deceit. But there is also a broader call for privacy, for a life more open to the possibilities of love, and also a razor-sharp critique of the way many of us confuse “liking” with actually giving a damn. As so many of us are learning here in New York (and London, and Chicago, and Seattle, etc.) privacy and isolation need not be synonymous. Privacy is, instead, essential in building our ability to care, to risk, and ultimately to love. It is important to remember that in this world of instant connectivity, perhaps we are the engineers of our own loneliness and isolation; perhaps we can listen to O’Neill and turn instead toward love.