Scoundrel Time

Problems of Knowledge: An Interview With Tracy O’Neill

In mathematics, the quotient is what you get when you divide one quantity by another. Thus, 3 into 36 yields the quotient 12. In Tracy O’Neill’s vertiginous new novel of information and its discontents, quotients are what remain when carefully manufactured and curated selves are deconstructed by surveillance, data-gathering, or ordinary intimacy. Alexandra is an American working in advertising for a ubiquitous social media company. Jeremy is an Englishman who’s moved from finance into social work. Han is the little boy they adopt to anchor them in their new life. But both of them have secrets they are keeping from each other as well as myths they entertain about themselves. Quotients explores the dreadful consequences that arise when people give up whoever they are to become whom they want to be.

Peter Trachtenberg: I think of Quotients as a Joseph Conrad novel concealed in the garments of post-modernity, that is a novel in which the de-privileging or dethroning of various kinds of authority, and especially the authority of knowledge, coexists with an investigation of moral and psychological values that were with us in the 19th century—and, actually, long before that, especially love and loyalty. Can you talk about that?

Tracy O’Neill: I’m glad you brought that up. In this book the characters are confronted with a fracturing of authority and a fracturing of authoritative narratives that means that they are almost never sure of what is happening around them or what has happened prior. They don’t know whether they can trust the stories told to them by their governments, their media, their online connections, their loved ones. And it creates in them a deep feeling of anxiety, of being unsettled, and of even not knowing who they are or where their allegiances lie at all. I think as well that it’s very difficult for these characters to know what loyalty might involve.

PT: The book is full of McGuffins, narrative threads that are based on misassumptions, that are misleading. One of the things I admire about the book is the way you gradually reveal information. For example, that both Jeremy and Alexandra have gaps in their origins.

T: Both of them want to proceed as though the false stories of their families are true. One thing that I also did want to get at was that intimacy is something that can be constructed in a very capacious way that doesn’t require the rote narratives that we tell ourselves about what family is.

PT: I wonder how much of this theme comes from having been an adoptee yourself?

TO: This book in a lot of ways is about the failure of categories and of data to contain what is true or real. It’s also about people trying to figure out what is true and real to them. And I see in that a parallel to adoption, to choosing family. I think lots of people have a similar experience of finding a family feeling outside of biology. I’m thinking of how chosen family has become, especially in the last couple of years, such an important queer trope. And I’m thinking about how we also conceptualize the nation as a family. A dysfunctional family.

PT: A family you do not want to see at Thanksgiving.

TO: No.

PT: Let’s talk about love then. In a way both Alexandra and Jeremy are people who are driven by love, but I think they have different definitions of it. If I were their couples counsel, I’d ask them, ‘Okay, what do you mean by love?’ I wonder if you can talk about that. Was that something you deliberately deployed, and can you crystallize what the difference is?

TO: The person that Jeremy loves most purely is their son Han. And the person Alexandra loves the most purely is her brother Shel. To Jeremy, romantic love is a little like admiration. He wants to follow Alexandra’s lead. Her appearance of certainty is so appealing to him in part because he can fold into it and almost feel stronger himself. But his love is still underpinned by fear. Alexandra’s love for Jeremy is quite different. It’s a little more mysterious to her. She doesn’t think about Jeremy as much.

PT: Or she doesn’t think about him as much as he thinks about her.

TO: Right. Her love for him exists in moments of togetherness, and it’s much more physical. The only times in the book when we see them having sex, the point of view is Alexandra’s. She doesn’t intellectualize or process the relationship very much, but she has an immense swell of feeling for him in these moments of physical love.

PT: A thing about love, and this goes back to the first question, is that it’s a centripetal force, a force that draws things and persons from the periphery to the center, where so much of the other forces in the book are centrifugal, hurling people apart. All the data and information, which you would think would bring people together, actually repel them.

TO: The love in this book often relies quite a bit on scripting, and on secrecy and small mythologies. The little myths that people tell themselves about the ones they love and that they tell about themselves in relation to the people they love.

PT: Let’s talk about the syntax: Your sentences are like puzzles that for a moment thwart the reader and then become intelligible with a click like the click of a Rubik’s cube or the Rubik’s cube-like object in the Hellraiser movies that when properly configured opens the gates of hell. And I know that when we were working together at CCNY, syntax and grammar were highly meaningful to you. In fact the first story of yours that I read was called “The Imperfect.” So I wonder if you can talk about your sentences and how you craft them and the meaning you attach to syntax.

TO: The characters are trying to understand what is true, what is happening, what the action is and who the agent of action is, so the syntax needed to reflect that. You mentioned this sense of unintelligibility at the beginning of the sentences. I’m making the syntax more knotted or unconventional usually in the first half, and then allowing it to flip into a more familiar form in the second half. This yields a plot of incomprehension moving toward comprehension that I think can be frustrating but can also be very satisfying. That syntax very much acknowledges the sense of reading as a process that happens through time. So on the one hand I am trying to create a little bit of a parallel between this problem that the characters have of understanding the true narrative and what the reader needs to do, but also a more general satisfaction that I feel with certain sentences, which move from not quite knowing toward something that at least approximates knowledge, or that shimmers more. It’s also a method of slowing the reader down in a book that’s about a world moving too fast. I’m asking the reader to interrogate speed and ease of knowledge as they’re reading.

PT: I often say when I’m teaching, especially when I’m teaching younger writers, that the ideal is to get your readers to play a game with you. And you want to be good at the game, but if you were playing tennis with a beginner, you wouldn’t want to fire shot after shot that the other person can’t hit back. You want to give them at least enough sense that they can play with you that they’re willing to play with you. Because otherwise they’re just gonna walk away. You’re actually quite wonderful at that. You offer initial resistance and then intelligibility.

TO: It’s hard to know sometimes as a writer when you are offering something that’s unintelligible. So the proportions that you imagine in the mind of the reader are really important. I think that’s something writers continue to struggle with, maybe for their entire lives.

PT: Only a certain number of writers think of what goes on between them and their readers as a game. It’s a very Nabokovian idea.

TO: One writer whom I really admire, Gina Apostol, plays very Nabokovian games with her reader, and it’s not unusual for her to, in a given chapter, make a multilayered metafictional move or create other little boxes that you have to move through to reach meaning. And I love winding through that process in her prose. Insurrecto is her latest book.

PT: Secrets have a great deal of importance in Quotients, but we’re also living in a moment in which secrets may not really exist any more, in the sense that we have technologies that enable us to read people’s entire biographies very quickly, or hack into their e-mail, or retrace their web searches. But we also have a president whom most people know is either a Russian tool or an unprincipled grifter and to forty or forty-five percent of the country that doesn’t mean shit. There’s no revelation that one could make about him at this point that would be likely to change that proportion. So I wonder if in a way one of the engines of the book is by now obsolete, like part of a rocket that’s fallen away as it passes through the stratosphere. Do secrets still matter, or does the possession of them still matter?

TO: I think the possession of secrets still matters. There are different levels of secrets. I think for example of a domestic violence piece I worked on for a long time, and that would be an example of a place where secrecy is extremely important to the people who experience it. If we’re looking at the level of global or national politics, do secrets still matter? I’m not sure entirely how they do, except for a level of mistrust that is immobilizing. How do you collectively act when it’s unclear what is happening? I think that the United States has been forced to admit that it spied on allies, and yet, the fallout can’t be directly traced. It’s also very unclear what the relation is between American intelligence and how military resources are disbursed. And ultimately the materially significant part is the latter, which is to say what we choose to do with information or secrets is what matters.

PT: Jeremy’s career in spying is an example of one in which there was a proportional, causal relation between what one knew and how one acted. But we’ve just emerged from a war in which all the reputable intelligence said there was no casus bellum, there was no reason to go to war with Iraq, but we still went to war, and suffered for it. And now we’re in a situation where we have a president who’s loudly and angrily disavowing most of what he’s getting from intelligence and actively (and visibly) trying to make the intelligence as plastic as Bush did.

TO: I’m slightly wary of the way in which we have at times celebrated the intelligence agencies during the Donald Trump presidency, specifically because they have sometimes seemed to be in opposition to Donald Trump. For example, there were many people who excessively valorized Mueller for possibly having done his job correctly. What continues to be true if you compare the Bush administration, the Obama Administration, and the Donald Trump administration is that we’re trying to understand how to check the powers of intelligence agencies and to understand what role intelligence is supposed to play in both military strategy and diplomacy and how different intelligence agencies ought to work together or enjoy autonomy. I’m sure that a lot of people in intelligence would say that intelligence is working when we think that it is not. It’s a tautology where there’s never a way to either celebrate or critique these intelligence agencies, or their methods of gathering intelligence.

PT: Or for what purposes.

TO: And for what purposes. And of course a lot of the book too is how intelligence almost inevitably ends up being used for a purpose other than the putative one.

PT: Something that also strikes me is that Jeremy, although he has this background in intelligence, is in some ways incredibly naïve.

TO: Yeah. But I think that is true of the belief that intelligence will make us safer. It’s an incredibly beautiful idea and I can understand its attraction, but it is naïve to think that by gathering more information people will in any way be more secure when its couched in cycles of violence.

PT: And it’s interesting that the person who disavows that idea, who critiques it most vigorously, is Shel, who’s described as being mentally ill.

TO: Throughout the book that’s a tension that I’m always working at the way you work at taffy or something. What I hope readers take from the text is that it’s difficult to know whether Shel does have some mental illness or if this is the way people discredit him or if this is the way people can think to respond to the dizzying annihilation of authority that he suggests should happen.

PT: If you could have anybody read this book, who would be the person you’d want to have read it and love it? Or put another way, who is your ideal reader?

TO: This is going to sound disingenuous, but when I’m writing I often imagine myself before having written the book, reading the book. I imagine a reader who wants to be surprised, loves ideas and following lacey connections. I imagine a reader invested in the notion that literary language steps away from the readymade and brings us closer to the textures of thought, emotion, and perception.


Tracy O’Neill is the author of The Hopeful, an Electric Literature Best Novel of the Year. She is a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree, and a Center for Fiction Emerging Writers Fellow. Her writing has appeared in Granta, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, New Yorker, and BOMB.

Peter Trachtenberg is the author of 7 Tattoos, The Book of Calamities, a winner of the Phi Beta Kappa Society’s Ralph Waldo Emerson Award, and Another Insane Devotion, a New York Times Book Review’s Editor’s Choice. His honors include Whiting and Guggenheim Fellowships and the Nelson Algren Award for Short Fiction. He teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and the Bennington Writing Seminars.





Image of Tracy By: Oskar Miarka