Miracle Polish by Steven Millhauser, 2011
The magic trick:
Summing up Monica’s life and character in one sentence to further set up the story’s climax
“Miracle Polish” is a kind of fractured fairy tale where magic and black-and-white morality invade what would seem to be an otherwise normal and modern married couple. The narrative builds to a classically climactic decision for the narrator, which I won’t ruin here. Sufficed to say, it only works if the reader is invested in the characters by this point, particularly the narrator’s wife. It’s a flat, obvious, morality tale without a nuanced Monica character. Fortunately, that point is moot because Millhauser shades in her character remarkably well.
He does it, for the most part, with one sentence. It really is insanely good. Just before the climactic decision, the narrator breaks from his storytelling momentarily to explain to the reader a basic understanding of Monica’s character. That one sentence seems to sum up her life and infinitely ups the stakes for the story’s climax. And that’s quite a trick on Millhauser’s part.
From the beginning there had been a deep kinship between Monica and me. She was wary, trained to expect little of life, grateful for small pleasures, on her guard against promises, accustomed to making the best of things, in the habit of both wanting and not daring to want something more. Now Miracle Polish had come along, with its air of swagger and its taunting little whisper. Why not? it seemed to say. Why on earth not? But the mirrors that strengthened me, that filled me with new life, made Monica bristle. 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. Far from escaping into a world of polished illusions, I was able to see, in the depths of those mirrors, the world no longer darkened by diminishing hopes and fading dreams. There, all was clear, all was possible. Monica, I understood perfectly, would never see things as I did. When she looked in the mirrors, she saw only a place that kept pulling me away from her and, in that place, a rival of whom she was desperately jealous.
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