Steven Millhauser: “Miracle Polish”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage.  Steven Millhauser’s “Miracle Polish” was originally published in the November 14, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

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It’s always a good week when Steven Millhauser is in The New Yorker.  I actually read this piece on Monday but then was out of the country on a business trip, so only now am I able to write a bit about it.  I’m anxious for your thoughts.

First things: I love Millhauser’s writing.  This, for me, was not his best story by a long ways, but it’s still well written with a great eye for detail and rhythm.

The story begins with the narrator regretting that he let a rather worn stranger sell him some “Miracle Polish”: “It cleaned mirrors with one easy flick of the wrist.”  The stranger is a bit surprised when this middle-class man buys the polish, but he is happy about it.  Nevertheless, his mannerisms suggest something amiss:

“You’ve made a wise choice,” he said solemnly, glancing at me and looking abruptly away.

The narrator, having no intention of using the polish, put it away for a while.  Then, one morning while checking his suit before a mirror, he noticed a smudge.  It’s probably been there for a long time, but now that he has some polish . . .

It surprises him that the spot disappears so easily.  Also surprising is the fact that now the rest of the mirror looks blemished, so he decides to polish the whole thing.  Stepping back to examine the mirror, he sees himself reflected nicely in the mirror:

But it was more than that.  There was a freshness to my image, a kind of mild glow that I had never seen before.  I looked at myself with interest.  This in itself was striking, for I wasn’t the kind of man who looked at himself in mirrors.  I was the kind of man who spent as little time as possible in front of mirrors, the kind of man who had a brisk and practical relation to his reflection, with its tired eyes, its disappointed shoulders, its look of defeat.  Now I was standing before a man who resembled my old reflection almost exactly but who had been changed in some manner, the way a lawn under a cloudy sky changes when the sun comes out.  What I saw was a man who had something to look forward to, a man who expected things of life.

Filling his house with mirrors, the man is invigorated.  He’s thrilled when he shows the mirrors to his almost-girlfriend Monica (“For years we had edged toward each other without moving all the way.”), who, like the narrator has never been particularly attractive, and whose reflection doesn’t change per se, and yet it does:

I had hoped the reflection in the polished mirror would please her in some way, but I hadn’t expected what I saw — for there she was, without a touch of weariness, a fresh Monica, a vibrant Monica, a Monica with a glow of pleasure in her fact.  She was dressed in clothes that no longer seemed a little drab, a little elderly, but were handsomely understated, seductively restrained.

It may sound like it, but this is not a rearranged Dorian Gray morality tale.  Still, kind of like Dorian Gray, perhaps the best thing about the story is the writing itself, for “Miracle Polish” is not quite as powerful as Millhauser usually is and it’s even, sadly, a tad predictable.  Still, a welcome tale from one of our masters.

9 thoughts on “Steven Millhauser: “Miracle Polish””

  1. Aaron says:

    Just got done writing this one up myself (http://bit.ly/uprNES) and I’ll agree; it’s not one of Millhauser’s best on account of the predictability. But I will excuse the writing itself — crisp as ever — as it’s a first-person story, and the narrative is *meant* to be somewhat boring, seeing as our protagonist is a man with tired eyes, disappointed shoulders, and a look of defeat. (And that’s how *he* sees himself, which is the problem, innit?)

    Still, I’m a sucker for things that deal with perception, and the pacing — whether you see it coming or not, and the actual shattering caught me by surprise — is well met. I also like the references to sight and eyes (particularly during the picnic), and the contrast therein between our narrator and Monica. There’s a romanticism here, too, beneath the grime, in that all we need to do is really *look* at the world in order to appreciate it. Those bags under our eyes? They speak of people who can face and overcome obstacles.

    Millhauser also exhausts his theme, here, which I find impressive. There’s not just illusory love, but there’s also blind love (“I bent so close that I couldn’t see her anymore”), each of which remains at odds with the love that had been earned and accumulated originally (“For years, we had edged toward each other without moving all the way” — almost like perfect reflections, which will always have the slightest sliver of something between them). I wasn’t waiting for any other shoes to drop, for other plots to be explored; I felt entirely satisfied by this piece. T. C. Boyle and Kevin Brockmeier, continue to eat your talented hearts out.

  2. Hi Mookse,
    This is another excellent review (and Aaron I read and enjoyed yours as well). I csn see why you like Millhauser as much as you do; the cleverness of the tale and the easy (seems effortless) flow of the narrative is very appealing.
    (Mookse, I only revently found M’s “Millhouse” novel and will get to it asap, after a few projects already underway.)
    I do wonder why you both find the story predictable: is it because you know (too well) M’s approach to short fiction, or did you actually see the ending foreshadowed in the beginning? To me, it was a delightful story with a surprise ending –though, after I had thought it over, I realized I should not have been. But this was much like the surprise of the obvious we can get when anything resolves “the way it must”. In other words, only in hindsight did I say “of course”.
    I greatly enjoyed the story and the reviews. So thanks for that. (I have already begun a review of my own which I will be posting on my blog -I hope – later this evening.)Meanwhile I’ll say I did find it to be, if not a parable, a cautionary morality tale. It seems the reason the narrator is not given a name is itself significant: He could be any one of us!
    Regards,
    kjml

  3. Aaron says:

    If you read much of Millhauser’s work, you’ll see that he’s generally very formal in structure: he introduces the germ of a thought and expands upon it (rapidly at times) until it collapses in on itself — the idea, taken to its logical conclusion. That doesn’t mean that the way in which he gets there won’t be surprising (as I say, I wasn’t expecting all the smashing), but from the moment he starts stocking up on mirrors to the moment his girlfriend delivers her ultimatum, you know there’s going to be *some* break between the perceptions.

    I’m in agreement about this being a cautionary tale, though I’m glad that he doesn’t outright provide a moral. (See my comments to “An Anonymous Island” for an example of a story that I feel does exactly that.) And yes, he certainly is a clever writer, yet without ever being so intellectual that he stills the life of the story.

  4. Rajveer says:

    Hello Trevor,

    I had been waiting to read your review on this piece. The first piece I ever read by Millhauser was ‘The invasion from outer space’, published in New Yorker and found it simply fantastic.
    By those standards I disappointed with this story. From the title itself one knows what the story is going to be: an deranged man’s self-consciousness (mirror) leading him into a deeper introspection and eventually a breakdown (breaking the mirrors).
    But yes, I agree, the language and attention to small things was great. But I don’t consider that to be a primary criteria for a good story. For me, it’s like, does this piece of fiction add value to the human experience?

    By the way, I follow your reviews almost religiously. Great job.

  5. Ken says:

    I have nothing to add this time. I liked the story, didn’t love it, and pretty much agree with the above comments.

  6. Shelley says:

    At least there’s a central image, which I have to say as a writer I miss in so many contemporary short stories, which just seem to wander….

  7. Reba M says:

    I may not be a conesuer of comparative literature however, the ending slapped of giving up hope for love- which startled me. So, in that way, this fiction does give value to the human experience. Maybe more often than we’d care to recognize.

  8. walter eanes says:

    I think this story is a classic. I see it as an allegory. In each of us there are two personna: the public one which is our best image and the private, haunting one that tells us of our weaknesses. Miracle polish erases the private personna, and we no longer see the side of us that we wish did not exist.

  9. Carole Gotay says:

    Who doesn’t love the thought of discovering an altered image of ourselves, especially in mid life. But like all illusions, it can last for only so long, as the energy to maintain it is greater than that to face the truth.

    This short story reminds me of Sylvia Plath’s poem, “In Plaster”. She refers to Old Yellow and the Plaster Saint. The old yellow is the flesh under the cast of her broken leg, her truth and inner life, and the plaster saint is the cast itself, the image that she portrays to the world, and in her case the one her mother has created for her and Sylvia has tried to present to the world in keeping with her mother’s expectations. In the last analysis, the plaster saint had to die because Old Yellow was truth.

    The real miracle of our lives is in the value of our living truth. Great story

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