Steven Millhauser: “Miracle Polish”

11/11/2011 § 3 Comments

Originally published in The New Yorker, November 14, 2011.

Millhauser is one of those authors who, in my book, can do no wrong. Even in a story like this, where he’s necessarily (though still frustratingly) repetitious in order to ground us in the first-person narrator’s obsession, his magical realism (emphasis on the realism) shines through, much like the so-called “Miracle Polish” sold in the opening paragraph of this story. Our blindingly mundane protagonist isn’t one for fancy phrases and is direct (albeit casual) in his tone: it has a droning effect, which is the point. For you see, this is a man who “knew how difficult it was, waiting for something better, waiting for something that was never going to happen,” and a man who “had a brisk and practical relation to his reflection, with its tired eyes, its disappointed shoulders, its look of defeat.” Along comes the Miracle Polish, however, and all of a sudden, he’s catching sight of something else in the glass: “Not for a moment did the mirror make her look young, or beautiful, for she was not young and she was not beautiful. But it was as if some inner constriction had dissolved, some sense of her drifting gradually into unhappiness.” It’s such a simple yet genius gimmick that it works on every level. Happiness is a matter of perception; therefore, let’s introduce a cleaning solvent that can alter — in a semi-realistic fashion — one’s perception. (The mirror doesn’t lie, it doesn’t show things as they are not. It just allows different interpretations: he now sees himself as “a man who believed in things.”)

Now comes the Twilight Zone-like escalation of the conceit, the O. Henry-like twists, for this man is now becoming Narcissus-like in his need to fill the house with mirrors; unable to be positive on his own, he now relies on reflections to keep him feeling good: “My tumbled hair gave me a look of casual confidence, and the shadowy folds under my eyes spoke of someone in the habit of facing and overcoming obstacles.” This clashes with the views of his girlfriend, Monica: “For years we had edged toward each other without moving all the way,” he notes, and while she’s still inching forward, he’s now taking a sidelong route to get there. At a picnic, he sees “the whole afternoon flowing into her face and eyes,” but for him, “the glare of the sun on the water hurt my eyes.” Optimism, meet pessimism; enjoy — or don’t — the water in your glass. “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince the world he didn’t exist,” goes the famous line from The Usual Suspects. Just so: we see only what we want to see, and in fact, none of us ever see anything more than the reflection of light. Some of us are just born with mental Miracle Polish.

The final third of Millhauser’s tale brings this clash to a head, as the hero must choose between Monica and her reflection: “Did she feel that I preferred a false version of her, a glittering version, to the flesh-and-blood Monica with her Band-Aids and big knees and her burden of sorrows? What drew me was exactly the opposite. In the shining mirrors, I saw the true Monica, the hidden Monica, the Monica buried beneath years of discouragement.” But here’s the age-old truth: the love of your life is absolutely beautiful to you, whether she is objectively beautiful or not. You don’t need rose-tinted glasses to think so (as in the majestic The Fantastiks), and the moment you come to rely on something else (alcohol, role-playing, drugs — not that these can’t be used in moderation), that’s the moment you are no longer truly in love. Our narrator misinterprets this, and attempts to prove his love by ridding the house of all the mirrors — but then goes a step too far when he starts methodically shattering them:

“She’s gone! That’s what you wanted! Isn’t it? Isn’t it? All gone! Bye-bye! Are you happy now? Are you?” I stopped in front of her. “Are you? Are you?” I bent closer still. I bent so close that I couldn’t see her anymore. “Are you? Are you? Are you? Are you? Are you?”

Blind devotion is no better than the illusory sort, and this violent repression is a terrifying thing: a doomed relationship, which the author has artfully exaggerated into a grotesque. It’s a lovely, effective story.

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§ 3 Responses to Steven Millhauser: “Miracle Polish”

  • Hello Aaron,
    Let me say first that I admire your ambition to write a post per day about leading and significant works of short fiction. I can barely accomplish reading one a day, nevermind distilling my thoughts as ably as you have done, especially on such a schedule.
    I liked your essay on Millhouse very much, and especially your take on blind love and illusory enchantment as both antithetical to the real deal. I think this is central to the story, too. I do bridle a bit when you say “Some of us are just born with Miracle Polish.” Isn’t poor Monica an actual counterargument to this? She is just as blase in appearance and experience, etc. as the narrator –but she tries harder than he does, doesn’t she? That is, in the story, don’t we have evidence that she resists easy alternatives and, even hesitantly, tries (with success) to smile? to open herself to possible, real beauty?
    I will be posting yat another review of this fine story, later tonight on my own blog; but I wanted you to know that I enjoyed yours also and will look in again (and again) in the future.
    Meanwhile, good work and good luck
    Regards,
    Kevin

    • Aaron Riccio says:

      Kevin, thanks for the kind words, though my ambitions have mislead you slightly in that I’m leaving weekends out (and wound up taking two months or so off, which is why I’ve had New Yorker stories to catch up on). I think we’re saying the same thing about being “born with Miracle Polish”: Monica is the argument for this, not against. She is just as shabby as the narrator, but her eyes are clearer and closer to seeing the positives of life, rather than fixating on its drab smudges. Go a step further, I’m sure you’d find people who are even bigger optimists — Monica is not without her insecurities — but the essence is that Millhauser’s only doing semi-magical realism here, in that he’s exaggerating an ability which we all innately have the ability for. Looking forward to reading your thoughts once they’re up!

  • […] read it. And you can. By the way, Fail Better wrote a lot more about this story. You should go there, […]

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