"Miracle Polish" by Steven Millhauser Originally published in the November 14, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
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.