Short Story

What Can We Steal From Steven Millhauser’s “Miracle Polish”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Miracle Polish,” short story
Author: Steven Millhauser
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story premiered in the November 14, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.  As of this writing, you can read “Miracle Polish” right here.  Heidi Pitlor and Tom Perrotta chose the story for the 2012 edition of Best American Short Stories.

Bonuses: Here is what Short A Day thought about “Miracle Polish.”  Here is a lengthy and interesting interview with Mr. Millhauser over at BOMB.  Here‘s “A Voice in the Night,” another Millhauser story from The New Yorker.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Momentum

Inciting incident: A peddler shows up at the first person narrator’s home.  The old man is selling Miracle Polish, a product that will put a special shine on any mirror in your home.  The narrator watches as the peddler leaves; there’s a perfectly appropriate moment of oddness as the salesman locks eyes with the narrator before leaving.  The narrator cleans a mirror with the polish…he looks younger and fresher.  His girlfriend Monica is tired, too.  She doesn’t seem to like the happier-looking Monica she sees in the mirror.  The narrator soon puts mirrors on every wall in his home, causing tension in his relationship with Monica.  She believes that he prefers the more youthful version of her that he sees in the mirror.  There’s a perfectly inevitable conclusion in which Chekhov’s mirrors are dealt with in proper fashion.

The story reminded me a bit of an episode of The Twilight Zone, which is a massive compliment.  Mr. Millhauser creates a through-a-mirror-darkly magical realism world in the same way that Rod Serling did in many of the Twilight Zone scripts.  Everything in the narrator’s world is perfectly normal…except for the Miracle Polish.  There’s the sense of impending danger; we’re led to wonder why the peddler locked eyes with the narrator in such a strange way.  There’s a “hook” in the beginning that looms over the entire story.  That second bottle of Miracle Polish…the peddler advised the narrator to buy one, but he didn’t.  This hook is paid off in the final paragraph of the story.  As in the best Twilight Zone scripts, the “strange” things, the magical fantasy, all relate to the rest of the story and its theme.  That unpurchased second bottle also creates a kind of countdown…will the narrator run out of Miracle Polish?  What will happen when he does?

Mr. Millhauser also creates characters that truly belong in this story.  The middle-aged man feels run-down and doesn’t seem to like what he has become.  He’s just the kind of guy who could use a look in the mirror.  So Mr. Millhauser offers him a particularly clear look into one.  His girlfriend Monica has a habit of “assessing her looks mercilessly.”  As she is first described, I thought Monica was a teenage young woman.  Instead, she merely has a few of those qualities.  It’s been quite some time since I was around a teenage young woman, but I’m guessing mirrors still play an important role in their lives.  These two characters are confronted by mirrors; one likes the reflection and the other doesn’t.  That means tension!  Whoo hoo!

Another tactic Mr. Millhauser employs is apparent when you look at the left margin of the story.  One of the problems I have is deciding which parts of the story to render in scene.  Mr. Millhauser creates an around-the-campfire feeling by offering long paragraphs and sliding through time a great deal.  Which scenes are absolutely necessary?  We need to see the narrator and Monica looking into the mirrors.  And arguing about the mirrors.  And what happens during the climax, when the conflict comes to a head.

What Should We Steal?

  • Relate the ending of your story to its beginning.  Your story should make some kind of unified comment about humanity or the world or whatever, right?  The theme should be as consistent as the characters and setting.
  • Give your characters what they deserve.  Four horny teenage boys want to have sex?  Make them forge a pact with each other to get laid.  Your character is a liar and manipulator?  Put him or her in a political drama.
  • Flatten out the left margin.  You can create narrative momentum by focusing less on describing scenes and more on describing story.

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