Serendipity, Altruism, and Sociopathy – The Beauty in “This is a Book”


Serendipity is often defined as a happening of chance, purveyor of help, good fortune, smiles. Serendipitous phenomena may beckon joy in times of despair, alleviate need in the midst of hardship, and quite possibly, restore faith in humanity. Quinn Farstride, town eccentric, arrives when most needed. No one knows how he pays his bills, keeps up with school, nor buys a home. Not a geographic coordinate can ever be determined for where he presently roams. Apparently, Quinn is a miracle worker. But is he altruistic?

In A Narcissist Writes Letters, to Himself, E.I. Wong has posted a draft of a mesmerizing novella. Transferred onto MS Word, single-spaced, the text comes out to 70 pages, feasibly read in two to three hours. But it is to be read again, firstly for its depth in themes to involve human relationships and the psychological, and secondly for the intricacy Wong’s writing imbues in character development and ambiguity. Is Q.F. a narcissist? Schizoid, a sociopath? A disorganized schizophrenic, as he initially proclaims? Soundness of mind aside, I wondered, “Did he really donate his kidney, blood, and marrow out of sheer kindness, or were they tickets to immortality? If they are simply tickets, should I be disappointed? Should I be mad?”

Dr. James Thatcher, professor of anthropology, writes a letter to his daughter, Melanie. Dr. Thatcher is a man who hates to lie, and on his deathbed, writes a letter to Melanie relaying a secret kept for eight years. As his son Todd faces renal failure, a gaunt ghost from Melanie’s childhood makes a university visit. Awkward, yet forceful, Quinn Farstride insists that he donates his kidney, already wielding test results that determine a plausible compatibility. Otherwise, little brother Arthur would donate, but doing so would jeopardize his journey in competitive football.

Quinn tells Dr. Thatcher he is losing his mind, and by donating, aims to preserve a functional aspect of his personhood before descending into madness. The mannerisms, speech, and uncanny knowledge of family affairs are all too unnerving. Predictably, Quinn fades, undetectable and absent to thank. After the donation, Dr. Thatcher ventures to find Quinn, speaking with his wife, consulting with mental health specialists, and finally, speaking with a Dr. Paysinger, the administrator at the hospital where Todd received treatment. Her disclosures captivate and intrigue, providing a detailed sketch of the vanishing oddball.

Emily, Dr. Paysinger’s daughter, has always been strange. In retrospect, Quinn’s mentorship only cultivated her peculiarities. Emily is sickly, needing blood transfusions to the extent that reserves have been drained at the hospital. Of course, Quinn has just the right type O negative blood to be a donor. Like the case of the Thatchers, Quinn coerces Dr. Paysinger into allowing him to repeatedly give blood to her daughter. Despite his frailty, donations continue, until the time of her transplant. The prospect of Quinn not needing to visit proves so distressing that ultimately, he vanishes from Emily’s life. At this point, erasure is a trend, a trademark end of Quinn’s interpersonal relationships.

But why does Quinn act, think, and commit to the feats that he does? Because he’s weird. This is a gross oversimplification. The goal of the narrator, and perhaps of readers, is to determine motives. What drove Quinn to give his blood, his time, his knowledge to an ever precocious young girl, and donate his kidney to the brother of a childhood friend with whom interactions were scarce? Quinn professes his love for Melanie. We know he hasn’t gotten over her, as his wife is a redheaded replica. Why does Dr. Thatcher take all this time to rediscover a strange bird who has already shown he can’t be found? Hell, Quinn doesn’t even want a “Thank you.” His ultimate request reads:

“I would like my last sane act to be a noble one. I would like myself, as I can perceive now, to be immortalized in this deed, so that in the future, when I am lost, I have a definite idea of the man I truly am; the man who I will try to uphold against my own illness.”

While Quinn’s desire is understandable, is it altruistic? He wants to preserve a sense of self. Of course that’s self-serving. But it doesn’t detract from the magic of his deeds, his resilience to the wear and tear of medical giving, the ability to self-sustain in the face of meager supply. Quinn is pretty weird. And impressive. He teaches martial arts to a young girl as a hands-on lesson in physics. A creative guy, though exasperating.

An exchange with Emily Paysinger gives Thatcher greater closure. The severance her mother describes was not permanent, for Emily visits Quinn after the kidney donation. Again, he disappears, despite the operation leaving him debilitated. Several lines shook me. Emily remarks,

“It wasn’t until I went to visit him in recovery that I realized that he had been…grooming me for some sort of purpose.”

Eventually, Emily receives a seven-paged letter from Quinn. More text that eerily resonates:

“He called me his ‘little catalyst for change.’ He wrote that I was to finish the ‘projects’ that he no longer could, and wrote me a list of instructions on how to complete each ‘equation.’ Quinn called the list a sort of training manual for what I was supposed to do and become.”

Bluntly, I admit that I thought to myself, “What a frickin’ narcissist!” Did Quinn write these equations, the framework for all these projects? What if he didn’t? And what kind of change was Quinn hoping to actualize?

Another of Quinn’s rarely explicit desires, and thoughts:

“‘It is my wish that you become a paragon of goodness. I see within you that potential to become something greater than the caliber of individuals that fill our world. You, my little angel, can be a creator and perpetuator of goodness and light…This is not a charge, or a demand I set upon you, but an acknowledgement from one friend to another, of the perfection I know you are capable of, and a design, a path, a way to that unified state.'”

Quinn seems to express a disappointment in the people around him. So does Melanie. In the beginning of Dr. Thatcher’s letter, he recalls her commenting, “‘Love isn’t real.'” But the letter aims to dispel this notion.

A dysfunction in personality seems to be a recurring topic of interest concerning Quinn’s character. I found him too deliberate and composed to legitimately suffer from the complexities of disorganized schizophrenia. He is written as a man who thinks, deliberates, inculcates. He reveals himself to be former thief, a rebel scornful of contemporary conventions, traveling yuppies, the ignorant layperson, organized religion. He is the quiet child in the corner of one of your college classes, never speaking his mind, though his facial expressions and mannerisms reveal all you need to know that something’s amiss. Something is brewing that chills, potentially harms without conscience. You’ve met “The Sociopath Next Door.”

And while it is dictated that sociopaths cannot feel, and indeed lack a moral framework, I refuse to think his interactions with Emily were purely self-serving. He taught her things of utility, and the end results of his doings, and her completion of the “projects” were good. Beneficial. Improved the lives of many. This seems too descriptive of utilitarianism. While the popular philosophy embraces maximization of good for all involved, altruism stipulates that good is spread to all except the actor, or “creator and perpetuator of goodness.”

Does Quinn benefit from any of his doings? It’s a topic for solid debate. Melanie, the love of his life, gives him the confidence to adopt a new perspective and disown his former ways. Emily, his adoring student, absorbs all the wisdom he wishes to teach, continuing his grand projects. But even if the projects perpetuate good, it seems that Quinn prefers not to be thanked, or even acknowledged. While the benefits he gleans are up for questioning, we know that he is gone. Regardless, miracles are made, within the story and craftsmanship alike.

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3 thoughts on “Serendipity, Altruism, and Sociopathy – The Beauty in “This is a Book”

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