Associate Editor Pamelyn Casto

A Close Reading of Raymond Carver’s
“Popular Mechanics”

Read the story.

Or read it in Carver’s collection Where I’m Calling From.

Kampfe by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Raymond Carver’s “Popular Mechanics” is short, simple, and highly disturbing. It is one of those tiny stories not easily forgotten. This close reading will be a look at some “little things” in the story– little details, images, and writing strategies that make it stand out and help make it memorable.

Three Titles For The Story

Since its first publication, the story has undergone three titles. Carver originally titled it “Mine.” Then, at the urging of Gordon Lish, Carver’s editor, it was changed to “Popular Mechanics” when it appeared in his collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Then in his collection Where I’m Calling From Carver changed the title to “Little Things.” It can be interesting for a reader to select his or her preferred title and think about what might be gained or lost with each of the choices.

“Popular Mechanics” is an intriguing title, more so than “Mine” or “Little Things.” According to an online dictionary there is a branch of physical science that “deals with energy and focuses on their effect on bodies.” Here Carver presents an energy (in this case the energy to end a relationship, end a marriage) and the effect of that energy on the bodies involved–on the man, the woman, and on the screaming baby. There is also a magazine called Popular Mechanics that appeals more to the layman rather than to the higher scientific community, so perhaps what Carver is in part doing with his title is to set up a situation that firmly places it in the “dirty realism” or “K-Mart realism” setting. It’s about little everyday people, small, nameless, unknown people.

The word “popular” in the title also suggests common use–the way the mechanics of love/ hate, unity/ divorce work on the more common, more “every day” types of us. It can sometimes get quite ugly.

The couple in the story is animated by a destructive and negative energy. Each holds onto the child as the baby screams in terror. The story ends with the baby being at least metaphorically pulled apart, being split right down the middle. The story abruptly ends there. We don’t learn the actual fate of that poor child but we know something has been at least irreparably damaged. Based on that, my preference is for the title “Popular Mechanics” because it encompasses so much– the energy, the “commonness” of the situation, and the effect on bodies caught up in that destructive energy.

No Wisdom of Solomon

The piece also draws from the story in the Bible where King Solomon must resolve a dispute between two women over a child, and both women claim the child is theirs. Solomon tells the two women he will settle the dispute by taking his sword and splitting the baby down the middle. Then the real mother denies that she’s the mother and in this way the king could decide who was the actual parent. (The one who denied being the child’s parent would ensure that her child would live). But with Carver’s story there is no wisdom of Solomon to help resolve the issue of who gets the child. Carver presents two hurt and angry people and a screaming and terrified child caught between them.

Little Things

Now to “little things” in the story. That title also serves well but might be too easily forgotten. The title is not as strong and fitting as “Popular Mechanics.” It also borders a bit on cliché — but perhaps that is part of Carver’s point or writing strategy– to highlight the ordinariness, the commonness, the repetitiveness of such situations.

So what’s “little” about the situation depicted? The story begins with a simple setting—it is getting dark, snow is melting into dirty water. It’s a streaky and slushy and unclear time. The inside mood is like the outside mood and we have this house with “a little shoulder-high window that faced the back yard.” The home is not one of luxury—it is likely just a little thing plopped down in a little neighborhood– a common and a not extraordinary setting with a couple in the grips of separating– a very common story of three little and common people in a little bitty house. Then another important “little thing” is the couple’s baby. An old song that comes to mind is “Little Things Mean A Lot,” which was popular during Carver’s era– a love song that sings of how much little things mean in a love relationship– and these sweet and clichéd “little things” are not depicted in Carver’s story. But these kinds of “little things” depicted by Carver mean a lot too in a disastrous scene of ending a love relationship.

Carver’s Use of Dialogue Tag Lines

Effective and interesting, too, is the way Carver omits quotation marks in the story’s dialogue. In this piece the tag lines are simple and little: “he said,” “she said,” “she cried,” “she screamed.” The stronger tags come as the story gets more intense. At one point one line of dialogue contains two instances of “she said” — Don’t she said, You’re hurting the baby, she said. That comes just before the more brutal part and helps add to the rising emotions. (And which echoes court cases that revolve around “he said” and “she said.”) I read this one out loud and to my surprise tears formed. It was so painful to hear. Little painful and hurtful lines of dialogue– little things do mean a lot.

Menace In The Story

In his essay, “Principles of a Story,” Carver said this: “I like it when there’s some feeling of threat or menace in short stories. I think a little menace is fine to have in a story. For one thing it’s good for the circulation. There has to be tension, a sense that something is imminent, that certain things are in relentless motion, or else, most often, there simply won’t be a story. What creates tension in a piece of fiction is the way the concrete words are linked together to make up the visible action of the story. But it’s also the things that are left out, that are implied, the landscape just under the smooth (but sometimes broken and unsettled) surface of things.” This information seems as if it was written specifically for “Popular Mechanics” since it is so fitting.

Abrupt, Ambiguous Ending

Then the ending is so abrupt, stating only: “In this manner, the issue was decided.” That also recalls a court case– and for the reader the issue is decided–this couple cannot be together a minute longer. And the word issue echoes back to the baby– the issue of the couple’s love. The issue was settled in this brutal manner. This is a fitting, memorable, and disturbingly ambiguous ending, and which harkens back to the idea of Solomon again and his grand decision for resolving a similar case, which in the Bible is also a tiny story–another “little thing.” These parents are not like the women in the old story–neither will give in to spare the child being divided (at least metaphorically) right down the middle.

This tiny story isn’t easily forgotten. Carver made use of a simple and common situation and used various out-of-the-ordinary writing strategies to achieve this stand-out, memorable story.


About the writer:
Pamelyn Casto, twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), Fiction Southeast, and Writing World (and elsewhere). Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips From Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new book Critical Insights: Flash Fiction. Subscribe to her free online monthly FlashFictionFlash newsletter (first issue published in 2001) for markets, contests, and publishing news for flash literature writers. Casto is an Associate Editor at O:JA&L.


Image: Kampfe by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880 – 1938). Unknown medium. From an unspecified art book. Before 1938. Public domain.

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