In our current state of semi-solitude, trying to write sentences about other sentences feels alien. I spend too much time staring at screens and reading the news, my mind is quick to tilt towards anger at those in power. Reading anything literary is difficult, hard to connect with. Everything is a political polemic.That includes Tracy O’Neill’s new novel Quotients. And it is a political book, just not an overt one. The story starts with the Seven-Seven attacks on London in 2005 and unfolds as a commentary on the life we’re living now: profiteering from disasters, the rise of social media and screen obsession, hyper-digital connectedness (and reliance), shady arms of governments conducting shadow intelligent operations, and everyday people trying to navigate an ever shifting social playing field via moral compasses that never stop spinning. Sovereign authority is everywhere in the novel, but it’s always just out of view hiding in a darkened doorway, or slipping out of sight each time a character looks over their shoulder. There is an air of mystery and thrills and subtle issues of political power all throughout the book.
Still, every story is a love story. The heart of the book is the relationship between Jeremy Jordan, an Englishman, and Alexandra Chen, an American, as they try to maintain the tenuous connection they’ve found. And isn’t this what we’re taught to do, what most of us want to do? To find that partner, navigate the ever-shifting landscape together, to see what happens when coming face-to-face with the world and all its evils. Jeremy thinks of Alexandra during the bombings: “He had not even told Alexandra he wanted to choose paper towels with her.” Is there a better description of what a committed relationship could be?
But this relationship is full of deceits—which one isn’t? Alex has a brother, Shel, who ran away as a teen. As Alexandra tells a private investigator “He didn’t disappear, […] he is simply appearing where I don’t expect.” When he does appear, he talks in riddles, ramblings about his life in intelligence and government secrets. Alexandra thinks him something like a paranoid schizophrenic and plans to have him committed. And Jeremy tries to ignore and keep hidden his past as an intelligence officer in Belfast during The Troubles, thinking, “Signals: they were everywhere if you knew how to heed them.” The efforts to maintain these secrets, to continue on with the necessary facades, take a toll.
The story shifts when Alexandra gets a new job in New York. Jeremy has no problem leaving London behind. There is a wedding, a new home, there is grad school and a new career for Jeremy, there is an adopted child and new challenges through parenting. But there are the same old secrets: Jeremy continues to see, and tries to ignore, signals; Alexandra continues her hidden pursuit of her brother, Shel.
There are also threads left loose and frayed. A disgraced online journalist plans to write a book about Shel. New characters are introduced who speak to spy craft. An African American teen, Tyrell, shows similar proclivities to Shel. There are shifts in Jeremy and Alexandra’s life and marriage. These minor plot points never quite connect. They are only resolved in summary, in the novel’s coda—this proves unsatisfying, yet intriguing.
I’m not the kind of reader (or critic) that demands a plot. I am more interested in what a writer does with style and language. What I most appreciate about Quotients is the same thing I find most difficult, and that is O’Neill’s syntactical and stylistic play. The language in this novel is all things all the time: challenging, playful, exciting, and opaque. On the upcoming adoption, O’Neill writes, “Jeremy had the sense that he was watching with future retrospection. There was a sense of something having already happened imprinted in the unfolding present, an aura of story, once upon a time. He was not American after all. He was from the part of the world where inevitability was still expected. You were your father’s son. Or at least your mother’s.”
If O’Neill wanted to write a simple literary thriller, she would have. What she has given us with Quotients is a piece of art that eschews convention, one that forces us to take a fractured narrative and turn it inward. We are asked to consider what secrets we are keeping from loved ones, from ourselves, and for what reasons. We are asked to consider the power structure of our own lived experiences—what we refuse to acknowledge in perceived banalities. This is a book for our paranoid age, the one where we keep our secrets pressed tight against our chests; the one where we have no secrets at all.
By Tracy O’Neill
Published May 12, 2020