Politics and Society

Friday, November 11, 2011

Stephen Millhauser’s “Miracle Polish” (2011)

                                              from the New Yorker Magazine, November 14, 2011

   Stephen Millhauser is an American writer with at least ten novels, three short-story collections and a Pulitzer prize (1997) already under his belt. At 68, he would seem to be a writer of the old guard, but his fiction is probably more popular (even trending, if not trendy) now than at any time in his career. This New Yorker story helps to explain why!

  Stephen Millhauser’s  “Miracle Polish” is the story of an unnamed man’s experience of the bizarre, even the wonderful, when he grudgingly purchases a bottle of glass cleaner, specifically for mirrors, from a (mysterious?) door-to-door salesman. After dismissively squirreling the bottle away in a drawer, he comes to use it eventually only to discover it produces a marvelous effect.

        I saw myself reflected clearly. But it was more than that. There was a
        freshness to my image, a kind of mild glow that I had never seen before
        . . . 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.
   Suddenly, and seemingly for the first time, the narrator sees a better version of himself, the way he might be, or see, if he were not so resolutely dour. As he is to learn, in the mirrors’ image everything looks better, fresher, more hopeful, more positive in aspect – at least, after the mirror has been treated to the simple cleaning with ‘miracle polish’. He can’t wait to share this discovery with his part-time girlfriend, Monica, who – like our narrator – “was not young and she was not beautiful. But. . . In the mirror she gave forth a fine resilience.” Of course, our dour hero soon prefers the mirror’s image of his lady-friend to the real thing, whom he sees as “a woman for whom things had not worked out as she had hoped, a woman sinking slowly into defeat.“ When once he does try to focus his full and real attention on the real Monica
         an impatience came over me as I looked at her dark-brown sweater,
         at the hand nervously smoothing her dark-green skirt, at the lines of
         tension in her mouth.
He is unable to calmly sustain contact with the reality; he retreats immediately into his impatience (an attitude, not a perspective!). So it goes also after a picnic at the beach: while she is basking in the radiance of a normal day (“I saw the whole afternoon flowing into her face and eyes.”) he laughingly declares “I’ve never seen you like this!” This may be true, but the effect is lost on him. Before they are home he has re-trenched himself in implacable gloom.
         The two of us, she in her straw hat and I in my cargo shorts, seemed to me
         actors playing the part of ordinary people, enjoying a day at the lake.
Is the man simply impossible to please? No. But happiness takes effort, not stimulation, because it is an accomplishment, not an effect. He is a slug or a coward, instead.

  This story, in the tradition of magical realism, takes us from there to an ending, which is a surprise, though it should not be a surprise. It is what one should expect if we have an idea what appearances and attitudes and impatience and despair really are. The measure of all these is in Millhauser’s characterization of this peculiar man.
  “Miracle Polish” is a tale told of, or about, an idiot! I am relying on the narrower, original (Greek) sense of the word “idiot” to suggest, not stupidity, necessarily, but peculiarity (think: idiosyncrasy) -- as in out of the ordinary, out of the main stream, out of sync with what others generally or normally think. He is a man barred by “some inner constriction” from seeing things as others - a normal person, for instance - might. In this narrower sense, the narrator certainly is an idiot: his perspective on things is very far indeed from normal. (Or is it?)
  An early line seems (to me) to crystallize very significantly the oddness of our narrator’s perspective. He says of the magical effect of the polish:

        “. . .if it had smoothed my skin and fixed my teeth and changed the shape
        of my nose, I’d have known it was some horrible mechanical trick, and I’d
        have smashed those mirrors with my fists rather than allow myself to be 
        taken in like a fool.”
   Why should the appearance of such a magical or miraculous effect instigate such a queer and violent reaction? He says he would “know” that it was a trick. (How so?) Is this a normal perspective? Or doesn’t this, rather, go hand in hand with the cleverly introduced strangeness of his perspective on the appearance of the salesman (“as if he were the new boy in school, getting ready to cross the school yard, where faces were already turning to stare at him”) and his motive (“I tried not to imagine what would drive a man to go from house to house”) in a thoroughly ordinary and middle-class “neighborhood like this one”? What is alien about this event? Why is the narrator’s perspective so skewed –and in what direction?
  Nothing is strange about salesmen making (or trying to make) sales. The oddity of the event (like the beauty of his would-be girl-friend) is in the eye of the beholder. Nowhere is this made more clear than in the timid hopefulness of Monica herself.
       She had a habit of assessing her looks mercilessly: she approved of her eyes,
       liked the shape of her wrists and the length of her fingers, put up with her
       calves, but was unforgiving about her thighs, her chin . . . etc.
She may be utterly ordinary, but she is also utterly sincere, authentic. She wants to be, and tries to be, a better version of herself –but still herself.

  Isn’t Millhauser suggesting that attitude – neither an emotion (like despair), nor a condition (like depression), and a much deeper thing than appearance or even perspective - is a matter of choice? Isn’t that the import of the line, wherein he says that, even given his new mirror-bound ‘appearance,’ he (the narrator) was still “not the sort of man that anyone would ever choose to be”? (Italics added!) This ambiguous line reflects the stubborn reluctance of the narrator to take a hint: (It’s not the image, moron, or the pretense, of contentment that counts. It is the attitude and the effort!); and the simple fact that people do choose the sort of man (or woman) they wish to be! This seems to me to be the moral point of “Miracle Polish”.
   Our narrator, we are told (by himself) is a man who “knew” (there’s that word again!) “how difficult it was, waiting for something better, waiting for something that was never going to happen.” Did he really ‘know’ this? (Or did he just upgrade myopia to the status of knowledge?) It is hard to imagine him “knowing” anything like this. Much easier is it to imagine him ruthlessly imposing this view of things on the world. (OK then, he is also, then, an idiot in that more common sense of the term.) He can’t see to get beyond the merest surface or image of things, though the opportunity has been given him, through the miracle polish, by the mysterious salesman. (Intriguing to ask, Who is that salesman?)

   A parable? A fable? A morality tale? Suit yourself. In any case, it is instructive and significant, I think, that the narrator is not given a name. For, he could be any one of billions.


  1. Yes, the Everyman; well put. As for the salesman, the story hints that it's the devil with its closing line: "A touch of slyness, a shadow of contempt, and the beginnings of unbearable hope." I know that I wrote in my response that some of us are born with Miracle Polish eyes, but gifts turn quickly to curses when they keep us at a distance from those we would love.

    I like your emphasis of attitude; that's a better word for it than what I was using, although since I would define perspective as a symptom/result of one's attitude, we're still speaking of the same fragile human condition.

  2. Hi Aaron,
    and thanks for looking in! I think you are surely right about the close connection between attitudes and perspectives; I tried to emphasize 'attitude' to highlight the ideational and, therefore, changeable nature of the narrator's "condition." He doesn't have to be harbinger (or witness) of doom, I think. (Isn't he actually different at the beach, if only for a while?)
    As to the mysterious salesman, you may be right there too, but I am still holding out for the other possibility: God? or Reality?, or The Nature of Things? Perhaps Millhauser is offering a parable about our choices: Life presents N with the opportunity to experience Love and/or Beauty if he will only "see." It is only N's characterization of the salesman that makes him sly (subtle?) and contemptuous (reproving?): and he is, as we know, unreliable unto clueless. One man's ceiling is another man's floor, however, and I think your take has a lot to offer. So thanks for that, too.