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Associate Editor Pamelyn Casto

A Close Reading of A. M. Homes’s
“With One Wheel Gone Wrong”

Read the story from the July 2006 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.

Notrica 32nd Street Market by Paul Torres

The July 2006 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine featured eight micro stories, all 300 words or fewer in length. The writers whose work was featured are Antonya Nelson, Anna Deavere Smith, Dawn Raffel, Mark Leyner, Stuart Dybek, John Edgar Wideman, Amy Hempel, and A. M. Homes.

A.M. Homes’ tiny story, “With One Wheel Gone Wrong,” is the lead piece in the O magazine featured collection and the tiny story is both highly amusing and disturbing too. Homes is an accomplished writer, is the winner of several major writing awards (Guggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts, and others) and is known for her disturbing novels and short stories. This small piece is disturbing in a familiar way.

The story shows a nameless but serious woman shopper, one who has been convinced that what she purchases makes her into a worthy human being. She’s called a perfect shopper. She’s clearly been influenced by advertisers and cannot resist going to where their strong attractions lead her.

The title is interesting and ambiguous when paired with the opening sentence: “With one wheel gone wrong, she careens into the checkout line.” The opening reveals one of those irritating and common shopping carts with a defective wheel. Who hasn’t had to use one of those once in a while? That’s a familiar beginning and most of us can identify with the opening. Homes uses a good strategy to pull the reader in by beginning with something familiar to most. It also subtly suggests mental imbalance and the story plays that out well.

In the opening sentence the character careens into a grocery store checkout line with a wheel that’s not working correctly. The opening is also highly poetic with its use of pleasant sounds and images: “one wheel gone wrong” (good assonance and good rhythm in “gone” and “wrong”), “prides/ sailing the circulars” (“s” sounds), “clipping coupons” (hard “c” or “k” sounds), “buying in bulk” (“b” sounds), “catnip/ kitty litter” (“k” sounds, “short i” sounds), “Pull-Ups/pomegranates/ plenty” (“p” sounds).

She’s a savvy, ideal, “perfect” shopper whose cart overflows in her highly capitalistic world of buy, buy, buy– buy brand names, buy exotic, buy sales, buy with coupons, buy in bulk. Everything mentioned could come right from an advertisement. After all, advertisers, like poets, make good use of rhyme and rhythm, consonance and assonance, and catchy, memorable phrases.

Does she actually love pomegranates or is that a trendy and expensive fruit she’s been told by the advertising world that she must have in her cart? Why those instead of, say, more common and readily available and less expensive apples or bananas? Perhaps pomegranates are used because they are more unusual than the common apples and bananas and because the “p” sound of pomegranates pairs so well with the “p” sound of Pull-Ups.

Another interesting move the writer performs is to give a suggestion of in and out with the catnip and kitty litter and with the Pull-Ups and pomegranates. With those choices, the writer shows that what goes in comes out as excrement. The writer makes good choices here, to show readers who we might be dealing with– someone caught up with shopping and name brands and proper product picks and the advertising world’s view of what she should choose and how she should live and what she should want. The poor woman’s cart is definitely wobbly.

Then something happens that alerts readers that maybe her life is not so ideal. By scratching that scratch-off she admits she has “an itch she can’t identify.” The ad speaks directly, personally, and intimately to “you”—in this case, the woman in the story. It suggests that if she doesn’t know what she wants, the scratch off will show her desire exactly. So she goes for it.

Once she scratches the spot, her finger is covered with gold powder—suggesting riches (as if she now has the Midas touch). Then the ad pulls her in with its sticky feel—pulling her into its corporate and big money lure that’s almost irresistible.

With a touch of magical realism, an incredible event told matter of factly, the writer shows that the scratch off ad transports the character fully into a world “untouched by reality”. In that world she understands the life she’s supposed to live– a life constructed by the ad world that depicts her ideal self, her ideal home, and her ideal life (or any shopper’s ideal). This is her epiphany, complete with illumination and inspiration. She sees the future and the pathway there via this new and likely expensive kind of floor tile she requires for manufactured perfection.

The scratch-off transports her into her beautiful and perfect future but with the sound of the scanner she recalls the world she just left and pulls herself back into it in order to answer the question the supermarket clerk asks: “are you taking that magazine?” Then she decides to buy all the magazines to keep her dream, her future, her outside- reality- world intact. Her cart is overflowing and one wheel has definitely gone wrong.

The ending is also amusing and disturbing. Even though she takes all the magazines, the cashier doesn’t react, just asks whether she wants paper or plastic to carry her purchases. The cashier has likely seen this scene many times before, where shoppers are mesmerized, lost in dreams, and not fully present.

Perhaps many of us are careening through life with one wheel gone wrong, thanks to the almost irresistible lure of the advertising world. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge that possibility.


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.

About A.M. Homes: Amy M. Homes (1961- ) is an American writer known for novels and short stories that feature extreme situations and unusual characters.

Image: Notrica 32nd Street Market by Paul Torres (contemporary). Oil on unspecified medium. 50 x 70 inches. 2009. By free license.

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