Some of the most popular works of fiction are what I think of as monkey-wrench stories. They’re tales that establish an ordinary, habitual, possibly boring-as-hell situation, then introduce an element that upends everything. When an author throws a monkey wrench into the works, the reader gets to experience the disruption (along with the ensuing stress, struggle, excitement) and then, if the tale leans toward hope, the reader can enjoy the restoration of order or the development of a new order.
Anne of Green Gables and Pride and Prejudice, two of my favorite novels, fall into this category. In the classic by L. M. Montgomery, middle-aged siblings Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert make arrangements to adopt a boy to help them on their farm and are mistakenly sent an eleven-year-old orphan girl. Anne Shirley—imaginative, talkative, hot-tempered, dramatic—is an endearing monkey wrench. In Jane Austen’s romantic masterpiece, the lives of Elizabeth Bennet and her four sisters are thrillingly unsettled when the wealthy bachelor Mr. Bingley shows up in the neighborhood…followed shortly thereafter by his pal Mr. Darcy.
The unexpected element in monkey-wrench tales doesn’t even have to be a person. It could be a ring that a hobbit inherits from his cousin. Or a barn spider named Charlotte. Or a confounding letter of acceptance to a school of witchcraft and wizardry.
Whatever the element is, it’s effective. It immediately incites conflicts and poses challenges. It gets the protagonist anxious, electrified, and moving. Suddenly, the protagonist must make decisions, take action, and solve problems. This disruptive element confronts the main character, causes him or her to strive and fail, discover and deny, resist and change. Run and hide—or face and deal. So much upheaval! That’s what makes such tales entertaining and engaging.
I’ve been thinking about this category of fiction because a huge monkey wrench has been thrown into the machinery of my life—into the machineries of all of our lives. The coronavirus that has already infected thousands is about as big of a disruption as I can fathom. (Honestly, I’m still having a hard time fathoming it.) The efforts to curb the spread are, themselves, startling disruptions. Schools, shops, restaurants, bars, clubs: closed “until further notice.” Sporting events, plays, concerts, meetings: canceled, canceled, canceled, canceled. Travel: restricted. Proximity: ill-advised. Hugs and handshakes: no.
Now what I hope for most is that this crisis will end soon. That the isolating measures will work. That my loved ones and yours will stay healthy. And that those of us who can stay home will stay home, for the sake of those who can’t—the nurses, truck drivers, grocery store employees, doctors, and other selfless workers out there who, in providing essential services, are putting their lives on the line.
In the coming weeks, as my kids, my husband, and I are holed up together, we’ll probably be reading even more books than usual. I hope, if dire disruptions are to unfold under our roof, that they’ll do so only in the fictional realms we’ll be visiting, in the safe confines of our books. Real life…it’s become a dizzying tale. I’m praying for a quiet and unremarkable conclusion.