Steven Millhauser: “Coming Soon” from TNY, 12/16/13

TNY Art by James Caseberes

TNY Art by James Caseberes

On weekends and evenings, whenever he was free, Levinson likes nothing better than to explore the streets of his town. Main Street was always alive, but that wasn’t the only part of town with an energy you could feel. On residential streets, houses displayed new roofs, renovated porches, bigger windows, fancier doors; in outlying neighborhoods, empty tracts of land blossom with medical buildings, supermarkets, family restaurants. During early visits to the town, he’d seen a field of bramble bushes with a sluggish stream change into a flourishing shopping plaza, where stores shaded by awnings faced a parking lot studded with tree islands and flower beds, and shortly after his move he’d watched, day after day, as a stretch of woods at the west end of town was cut down and transformed into a community of stone-and-shingle houses on smooth streets lined with purple-leaved Norway maples. You could always find something new in this town – something you weren’t expecting.

I liked this story a lot more than most of the Mookse & Gripes crew, which surprised me, since it’s usually the other way around. I thought it did a really nice job of capturing progress, change, as a runaway train – one we don’t realize is runaway, until we do. I like how Millhauser makes concrete, through Levinson, the idea that we all have our own threshold of where the train goes from being pleasantly thrilling, to being scary, our own ideas of at what point we are no longer in control.

Much of the story for me was in the language, the slow shift from descriptions like “thriving” and “lively” to words like “oppressive” and “confused”. Where he once admired the cranes and accoutrements of construction and change, by the end there’s a dark undertone: “On the strip of lawn between his sidewalk and street, a sawhorse sat next to safety cone. He imagined them coming closer, advancing along his front walk.” I like that a sawhorse, and a safety cone, are things meant to keep us safe; yet now, as change has run amok and proceeds faster than Levinson can handle, they turn threatening.

The path widened, began to rise; guardrails appeared; he was on a ramp; all at once Levinson found himself on a six-lane highway, where ruby tail-lights brushed away into the distance. Under a blue-black sky, Levinson entered the second lane, passed below a sign with a name and exit number he did not recognize, and rode off into the night.

Although Levinson’s panic is less personalized here, and the language more sedate, the sky is nevertheless blue-black, not a description that conveys the beauty of the night sky but a more frightening image, perhaps a bruise. He doesn’t know where he’s going, but he’s still going; it appears that, at this point, he has little choice.

I find the ending meshes with one of my own favorite little metaphors, and that causes me some concern, considering how it’s used. During a recent spate of medical procedures, I just considered it all like getting on a train: once you hop on, you don’t worry the route or how much fuel is needed or what speed is too fast, you just follow instructions and hope – hope very hard – the engineer and conductor will do their jobs correctly and get you to your planned destination safely. It involves surrendering control – someone else is driving the train, setting the speed and route – and a great deal of trust that those someones know what they’re doing (and aren’t impaired at the moment). There’s a time for questions during the decision-making process, but when it comes to the actual execution of medical procedures, it’s a time to let someone else take over. And here is where Levinson carries things too far, perhaps, and surrenders himself, a little at a time, to a world he no longer understands.

Of course, there is another reading. Maybe it isn’t that the world is speeding up on poor Levinson; maybe it’s him that’s slowing down… as someone who sometimes has trouble coping with the 21st century, I understand that, too.

And that’s the trick, isn’t it? To have the perspective to see whether it’s us, or the world that’s operating at the wrong pace. In a world where technology can proceed from barely-conceived idea to expensive toy to essential tool for daily living in what seems like a heartbeat, it’s not an idle question. Nor is this: is there anything we can do about it?

Yes, I liked this story quite a bit.

Steven Millhauser: “Thirteen Wives” from TNY, 5/27/13

TNY Art by Balint Zsako

TNY Art by Balint Zsako

My wives get along very well with one another, though their relation to me is more complex. People sometimes ask, “Why thirteen wives?” “Oh,” I always say, putting on my brightest smile, “you can’t have too much of a good thing!” In truth, the answer is less simple than that, though the precise nature of the answer remains elusive even to me.

Hello again, Steven. You’ve thrown another curve ball, haven’t you? I have to admit, I loved reading this, and found it very accurate, if by that I might mean that all of us are many different people at once and fulfill different roles, and the best kind of spouse is one who shifts gears at just the right moment. Who knows when to comfort, when to help, when to challenge or scold or just… disappear. It’s a great deal more interesting than that old-hat list of multiples so many consider to be included in “wife”: friend, lover, helpmeet – or, worse, the awful one that lists her by her uses: housekeeper, nurse, teacher, chef, accountant.

But you don’t write that sort of thing, the sort of thing I can read along with and nod and say, “Yes, me too, I know exactly what he means” to myself. You write things that make me scratch my head and read again and again – I had to print out and cut into pieces “A Voice in the Night” (that’s not a complaint; I loved the adventure). You write things that make me work for it (again, that’s not a complaint).

So what am I missing?

Is there some progression here as you list your wives? Forgive me for being reductionist – I know you don’t write mere lists – but since the story is available online it would be ridiculous for me to include thirteen individual quotes, one for each wife, and I certainly wouldn’t want to leave any out. So here is my bare-bones version of your wives:

Balanced partner, Comforter, Contrarian, Perfection, which, as you’ve discovered, is in itself an imperfection, Cheater (in thought, deed, or just possibility), Rejector, Double, Impossible Promise,
Secret-sharer, Needy invalid, Fixer, Opportunity Missed, Gone.

And I see something interesting. Maybe it’s not one woman at the same time. Maybe it’s in chronological order, with a few detours. We all start out with our ideas about marriage, the “You do the cooking and I’ll clean up” intentions, the “I’ll never wear a flannel nightgown” vows (silly fools who don’t appreciate the slow reveal, not to mention the softness of cotton and the comfort of warm fabric), have a first fight, make up for it, cheat (some of us skip this step, you know, it is possible), come together and grow apart as we age… is this a story? A story of a wife who made him (it is published as fiction) promise to turn off the machines when the diagnosis came through, kept it secret until the signs began to show, was beautiful in her neediness, made it easy for him, leaving onlu regrets of what they didn’t experience, and a memory in her wake, a figure that can’t quite be glimpsed?

Or am I overreading again, and it’s just a list? I don’t know, Steven, and I’m not sure it has to be any one thing. Maybe, like the thirteen wives, a story can be many things at once, rotating to show different faces depending on where we are when we read it.

My thirteenth wife is abundant and invisible; she exists only in the act of disappearing. This perpetual annihilation is her highest virtue, for by ceasing to exist she increases her being; by refusing to be a particular woman, she becomes a multitude. Though I am denied my thirteenth wife, who is always other, denial is her generosity, and I’m grateful to her for more lasting gifts: the gift of memory, the gift of desire, the gift of astonishment

In the end I have no idea what you’re doing here [Addendum: I just got an idea – you have no actual flesh-and-blood wives – these are imaginary wives you bring out in your imagination when you need them…], but, unlike when I didn’t know what you were doing in “Phantoms,” I love the ride. So thank you.

Steven Millhauser: “A Voice in the Night” from The New Yorker, 10/10/12

William Brassey Hole: "Eli and Samuel"

William Brassey Hole: “Eli and Samuel”

Everything connected: David playing the harp for Saul, the boy in Stratford practicing the piano, the cellos and violins behind the closed doors. The boy listening for his name, the man waiting for the rush of inspiration. Where do you get your ideas? A voice in the night. When did you decide to become a writer? Three thousand years ago, in the temple of Shiloh.

During my Misspent Youth as a Fundamentalist, I felt like an outsider during Youth Week. Everyone else was full of talk about what God had called them to be when they grew up: my best friend Debbie had been called to be a nurse; God had guided Lynne into teaching, the Blalock boys into music. Jesus himself had spoken to Wendy during prayer: she would be a missionary. God never told me to do anything. I begged God, on my knees before folding chairs in prayer meetings, sobbing into hard metal: Tell me what to do, what to be; tell me anything! Tell me the color yellow is good and the color turquoise is evil. Tell me dogs are better than cats, that long hair on men is an abomination, that you disapprove of dancing and movies, tell me something! But God didn’t speak to me. Prayer group leaders eventually would drag me from my impromptu altar and tell me to calm down so they could finish the service. Later, they’d tell me I wasn’t really saved. I started waiting up nights, hearing the Rapture in every passing truck or plane, the Rapture that would leave me behind to face the horrors of the Unsaved. Eventually I gave up and stopped going to a church that worshiped a God who wouldn’t save me, no matter how I prostrated myself before His folding chairs. I’d never be like Debbie and Lynne and the Blalocks and Wendy, who’d been given a mission from God. God didn’t want me.

It never occurred to me until I read this story that they were all making it up.

I’m assuming this is closer to creative non-fiction than fiction: an autobiographical sketch, maybe an exaggeration. It’s available online so you can decide for yourself. I quite enjoyed it, much to my relief; I’ve been distressed that neither of the other two Millhauser stories quite worked for me (though “Miracle Polish” got a lot more interesting to me after it lay dormant for a year). But it works for me, not because of any objective criteria (though the structure is pretty cool) but because of my connection with the material, with the idea of a child at night waiting in vain for God to call, and taking it personally that He doesn’t. And I rejoice when the 68-year-old version of the child understands he got a call after all.

“What kind of Jew are you?” A Jew from suburbia. A nothing Jew, a secular Jew, an unjewish Jew. A Jew without a bar mitzvah, a Jew without a bump in his nose. Later he develops the idea of the Negative Jew. A Negative Jew is a Jew about whom another Jew says, “You don’t look Jewish.” A Negative Jew is a Jew who says to another Jew, “Judaism is a superstition that I reject,” and to an anti-Semite, “I have Jewish blood.” A Negative Jew is a Jew who says, “I don’t believe in Judaism,” while being herded into a cattle car. Hitler, the great clarifier.

It’s also a personal reflection on atheism, on secular Judaism, on whether such a thing is possible. I suspect not. Even if one rejects the religious teachings, they have left their mark. At least it works that way for me: I can’t leave the Rapture completely behind. And there’s still something about Christmas…

It’s a story about ambiguity, between Judaism, Christianity, atheism; between father, priest, teacher; between wanting to belong but not wanting to leave something else outside. And it’s a story that’s not a story at all: it’s a grouping of late night meditations as ancient Samuel, a boy in 1950, and an old man sixty years later, try to make it through the night. Written because in 1950 the boy was enchanted by, you guessed it, stories.

That’s one thing about him: he can’t remember the important things. He can remember the prince climbing the hair to the top of the tower but he can’t remember the capital of Connecticut. Is it Bridgeport? The library in Bridgeport has long stone steps and high pillars. It’s what he first thought of when he heard that Samuel was serving the Lord in the temple of Shiloh. A temple is different from a church. Jews go to temple and Christians go to church. But Catholics go to Catholic church. And everybody goes to the library.

This is how a boy – Millhauser? – was called to be a writer: by a story in a book, a story that kept him up for four nights and connected the library and the car going by sounding like a waterfall and the bakery. It’s the night he became a writer. He heard the voice of God, after all. It just didn’t sound like the same one Samuel heard a few thousand years before.

I’m also a little hung up on the idea that the older version, the boy sixty year later, is waiting, dreading, a different kind of call: death. I think that’s probably a red herring, but I can’t shake it. There seems to be a summing up he’s doing. But, as Aaron Riccio of Short-A-Day pointed out, he says he’s in good health. This connection was hanging in the back of my mind as I read the story, and became very real to me a few nights later when in the middle of the night I had a serious asthma attack, my first in several years and the worst one I’ve ever had. It’s odd that as I got dizzy inhaling steam over the kitchen sink and coughing convulsively while the blood pounded in my ears, I thought of this story. I also thought of how many days of cat food I should put down if I called an ambulance, and, ever practical, the concern of “Do you know what insurance companies do to people who have been hospitalized for an asthma attack?” And, “What if I have a stroke, will my cat eat my face?”

(I’m grateful to Richard Russo’s “Horseman” for teaching me that it’s ok to have a personal reaction to fiction. But maybe I’ve taken it a little too far).

I have to admit I don’t quite “get” the story in a way I can explain. All I can say is that it worked for me. It’s loaded with ideas to think about and images I loved. I cared about the little boy who grew up to be an Author. And I was glad he was entranced by a story on that night, as I was entranced by this story, now.

[addendum: I’m very happy to see this one in the 2013 edition of Best American Short Stories]

BASS 2012: Steven Millhauser, “Miracle Polish” from The New Yorker, 11/14/11

I should have said no to the stranger at the door, with his skinny throat and his black sample case that pulled him a little to the side, so that one of his jacket cuffs was higher than the other, a polite no would have done the trick, no thanks, I’m afraid not, not today, then the closing of the door and the heavy click of the latch, but I’d seen the lines of dirt in the black shoe creases, the worn-down heels, the shine on the jacket sleeves, the glint of desperation in his eyes. All the more reason, I said to myself, to send him on his way, as I stepped aside and watched him move into my living room.

When I read this story a year ago in TNY, I used the word “jumbled.” I was happy to see it here in BASS, to give me another shot at it. It was far less jumbled.

For some reason, I’d thought it was more complicated than it was. I actually went back to the original online version at TNY, to see if it had been edited; it hadn’t. I enjoyed it far more now than I did back then, and I feel like I got more out of it. Of course, it’s all a matter of perception, isn’t it?

I was again struck by the language with which the narrator describes the changes he sees post-Polish, particularly the attitudes ascribed to his reflection early on: “a man who had something to look forward to, a man who expected things of life” and “a man who believed in things.” It’s one thing to look rested or even alert; it’s quite another to look forward to expect, to believe. These are things one might become, qualities to hope for.

When the narrator describes changes to clothing, it’s a little different of course, since a piece of fabric can’t expect or believe. But it’s still a shift in perception. “Rumpled” pajamas now have “a certain jaunty look.” Monica “was dressed in clothes that no longer seemed a little drab, a little elderly, but were handsomely understated, seductively restrained.” I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, by Rabindranath Tagore: “When I stand before thee at the day’s end, thou shalt see my scars and know that I had my wounds and also my healing.” It’s the narrator’s interpretation that is changed, not the image.

But though he sees a man who might believe and expect, he doesn’t seem to change his life much. He doesn’t start achieving more because of this attitude; he feels better, but it seems a sterile kind of improvement. A change without any effect.

The picnic, with its afterglow of gloom, reminds me of afterimages caused by fatigue of the rods and cones of the eye. But I’m still not sure why the bright sunlight had the effect it did; perhaps the use of all the mirrors had trained him to see as if affected by the Miracle Polish, but only enough to be evident in bright sunlight?

Something else occurred to me: Miracle Polish has been terribly isolating for the narrator, hasn’t it? He races home from work to the comfort of his mirrors. He loses his girlfriend, a less-than-close relationship, but seemingly the only one he has.

Apparently not everyone appreciates the effect of the mirrors; Monica didn’t. It isn’t that the polish had no effect; she noticed it. She simply didn’t want to live in that kind of altered reality, or she might have borrowed a little polish for herself. Instead she demands he choose, her or the woman in the mirror. Reality straight or altered. And he becomes hostile when forced to give up his mirrors. This took me to substance abuse – the obsession, the feeling better without change, the crack in their relationship – and suddenly the story had a whole new angle:

One of these days the stranger is bound to come again. He’ll walk toward my house with his heavy case tugging him to one side. In my living room he’ll snap open the clasps and show me the brown bottles, row on row. Mournfully he’ll tell me that it’s my lucky day. In a voice that is calm, but decisive and self-assured, I’ll tell him that I want every bottle, every last one. When I close my eyes, I can see the look of suspicion on his face, along with a touch of slyness, a shadow of contempt, and the beginnings of unbearable hope.

Perhaps the salesman – the salesman who opens and closes this story – is similarly isolated, and is seeking, not to make money from selling the polish, but a compatriot? The narrator as addict. The salesman as pusher. As deal-making Devil.

I wonder – if I read this story again in a year, will I again see something new?

BASS 2011: Steven Millhauser – “Phantoms” from McSweeney’s #35

McSweeney's, Issue #35

McSweeney's, Issue #35

The Phantoms, which some call Presences, are not easy to distinguish from ordinary citizens: they are not trnanslucent, or smokelike, or hazy; they do not ripple like heat waves, nor are they in any way unusual in figure or dress. Indeed they are so much like us that it sometimes happens we mistake them for someone we know…. They themselves appear to be uneasy during an encounter and switftly withdraw. They always look at us before turning away. They never speak. They are wary, elusive, secretive, haughty, unfriendly, remote.

I want so badly to like Steven Millhauser. This is the second of his stories I’ve read recently, and I’m not really seeing the appeal. I enjoyed “Miracle Polish” considerably more than this piece. I think I’ll read his new collection, “We Others: New and Selected Stories” and see if I can develop whatever sense it is that makes him so highly revered by people I highly revere.

Sometimes I get the feeling that the BASS people want to make sure each annual volume contains a variety of stories, so they encourage – perhaps require – that perhaps a couple of non-traditional narratives are included. Maybe they want one speculative fiction story. With this story, they get two quotas for the price of one. Of course, I could be overcomplicating the process.

It’s written in the form of a report, describing the phenomonon of Phantoms in a small town. It’s broken into sections, including multiple Explanations (with evidence against each one) and Case Studies. I tried looking at is as a portrait of a small town, but that didn’t really work. Is there some significance to the study of things we don’t understand? Of course, but that seems like too small a payoff. The phantoms depicted in the case studies behave in different ways (probably why they were chosen as case studies; you wouldn’t pick all the same types of encounters, after all) and the people who experience them vary widely as well. I don’t even find it to be a particularly interesting examination of astral phenomena. I feel like a failure.

There are people who love cilantro, and those who insist it tastes like soap. This has led to speculation about a “cilantro gene.” Maybe I’m missing the Millhauser gene. That thought makes me sad. So I’ll keep trying. Eventually, I’ll get it.

Addendum: This story is also in the Pushcart 2012 volume, making me feel even more stupid.

And again: it’s in the 2012 PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories anthology too; three for three. I still don’t get it.

Steven Millhauser: “Miracle Polish” from The New Yorker, 11/14/11

New Yorker illustration by Steve Powers

But the image in the mirror was unmistakably me – not young, not good-looking, not anything in particular, a little slumped, heavy at the waist, pouchy under the eyes, not the sort of man that anyone would ever choose to be. And yet he looked back at me in a way I hadn’t seen for a long time, a way that made the other things all right. He looked back at me – the thought sprang to mind – like a man who believed in things.

As I was reading this, I kept thinking it was a perfect Twilight Zone story – the original series with black-and-white Rod grimacing at the camera, explaining in the intro right after a brief introductory scene where the salesman appears on the guy’s doorstep, that he is not just buying a salesman’s wares, he’s buying a one-way ticket into The Twilight Zone.Yeah. I can see it, hear it. Maybe because of the salesman. Salesmen, as well as the disheartened and the defeated, were a staple of Rod Serling’s series. As were things such as slightly magical mirror polishes.

The story is available online.

Our unnamed narrator buys a bottle of Miracle Polish from a door-to-door salesman. That’s the first thing that’s off about the story (I don’t mean the story is written incorrectly, I mean it’s a story about offness). Why not just tell the guy to go? Or not answer the door at all? But the narrator maybe sees a kinship with the salesman, with “the lines of dirt in the black shoe creases, the worn-down heels, the shine on the jacket sleeves, the glint of desperation in his eyes.” At any rate, though he knows he shouldn’t, he invites him in, and then listens to the opening of the pitch for Miracle Polish, all the while wondering:

I tried not to imagine what would drive a man to go from house to house in a neighborhood like this one, with porches and old maples and kids playing basketball in driveways, a neighborhood where Girl Scouts sold you cookies and the woman across the street asked you to contribute to the leukemia drive, but no strangers with broken-down shoes and desperate eyes came tramping from door to door lugging heavy cases full of brown bottles called Miracle Polish.

That’s the next thing that’s off. He tries not to imagine, which implies he does, in fact, imagine, leading the reader to imagine. We have no idea, however, and won’t until further along in the story.

The narrator buys a bottle. Not two – he rebuffs the salesman’s attempts to double the purchase, and the guy knows when to pack it in. The narrator watches him as he’s leaving; he glances back at the house, grins, then frowns, then goes. I’m not sure why the grin and frown – perhaps he caught his reflection in a window and was not pleased? – but I’m sure it’s important.

He tosses the bottle in a drawer with: flashlight batteries, light bulbs, and an unused photo album. Another off detail. All things to do with light. And why is the photo album unused? These are the tiny details that fascinate me.

A week or so later, the narrator notices a smudge on the mirror in his hallway, and gets out the Miracle Polish. It removes the smudge easily, but the rest of the mirror looks dingy now, so he cleans the entire surface. He notices he looks better in the mirror; nothing that dramatic, he isn’t younger or handsome or anything, but he looks fresher, with a glow, like “a man who expected things of life.”

He ponders this. Maybe the mirror had really needed cleaning. He tries the polish on other mirrors, and the same effect occurs. And it isn’t just him: the walls seem brighter, the wood of the door seems richer, and the next morning his pajamas seem jaunty, the towels fuller.

He needs another opinion – “It was Monica who would set me straight, Monica who would know – Monica, who looked at the world through large, kind, skeptical eyes, darkened by many disappointments.” The way he continues to describe Monica, who arrives “twice a week after work, once on Tuesdays and once, with her overnight bag, on Fridays,” had me wondering if Monica was a girlfriend or a housekeeper. She’s the girlfriend, of course:

Sometimes, in a certain light, when she held her body a certain way, I would see her as a woman for whom things had not worked out as she had hoped, a woman sinking slowly into defeat. Then a burst of fellow feeling would come over me, for I knew how difficult it was, waiting for something better, waiting for something that was never going to happen.

Another off thing: he only sees this sometimes, only in a certain light. His earlier description of her seemed to indicate this was a permanent condition. But no matter; he has a bond with her, their disappointed eyes.

Monica sees a difference in herself, too. But they don’t seem to discuss much. In fact – off again – she says nothing at all in the story, though presumably she has something to say when she sees an image of herself that glows, in clothes that are understated and restrained instead of drab. But we don’t get to hear that; it’s just suddenly the next day.

The narrator starts buying mirrors. He fills the house with them, a new-born Narcissus. He feels happy when he sees his vitalized self. As Monica visits and sees the mirrors multiplying, she’s not pleased. She thinks he prefers her reflection to her. He starts looking directly at her more, all the while aware how much better she looks in the mirrors that now cover the walls of his house. Apparently Monica isn’t as concerned with the improvement in his reflection. Or she doesn’t care. Or perhaps she misses the kinship they had based on their real selves, and does not want to trade it for a kinship in reflection.

At this point I start to go bonkers, like I do when I’m watching one of those PBS specials on string theory: there’s always a place when I can no longer pin the ideas down and just have to let them whirl around and use faith or Zen or instinct and go with it. Does a person who sees himself as vibrant, actually become more vibrant? Does a person who sees how she would look if she were not covered by a film of disappointment begin to hate the contrast? Is it an act of betrayal to improve oneself if one’s partner is left behind?

The two go on a Saturday picnic at the lake. In the bright sunlight, Monica has the same glowing look. Is it the light? How the light reflects off the water and the sky? Any photographer knows reflected light is always more flattering than direct. But there is no Miracle Polish at work. I’m perplexed. And wait, there’s more: the narrator had difficulties with the day: “In the course of the afternoon an uneasiness had begun to creep into me.” The glare hurt his eyes, everything seemed sluggish, they seemed like actors playing a part. Perhaps this is the unease Monica feels in his house? Though that connection is not made here; I may be grasping at straws.

He buys more mirrors, and in time, Monica gets fed up. She demands that he choose between her, and her image. He tries to convince himself that the mirrors help him see the real Monica; it’s not a falsification, it’s a revelation.

Here I began to connect the mirrors with the idea of loving someone for their money, their fame, their success; it isn’t the same as loving them. And of course there’s loving the idealized version of a person. This is where so much love goes bad right off the bat: we see someone and imagine they are perfect, and as we get to know them better we discover they are not. In a loving relationship, we accept those things. But if instead we insist they change, or dislike the parts we overlooked at first, doom results. Trust me. Oh, wait, you don’t have to – you’ve been there, too, right? Probably on both sides of that formula, as have I.

The narrator pours the Miracle Polish down the sink, sets up the mirrors in the back yard and breaks them in front of Monica. He does this in such an aggressive way, it repels her. It certainly repelled me. His resentment crashed through every mirror. She leaves. And he is left with no more illusions, only the mournful memory of his mirrors, and the hope that the salesman will return some day with more Miracle Polish:

One of these days the stranger is bound to come again. He’ll walk toward my house with his heavy case tugging him to one side…. I’ll tell him that I want every bottle, every last one. When I close my eyes, I can see the look of suspicion on his face, along with a touch of slyness, a shadow of contempt, and the beginnings of unbearable hope.

Now there’s a change. There was no look of hope mentioned in the first encounter; has the narrator now learned to find hope where there is none? Or does he recognize hope that he previously overlooked? Or does he just imagine there will be hope, separate from whether or not that is a reasonable expectation? Perhaps the effect of the Miracle Polish has altered his perception so that he sees hope that is truly there, just buried under desperation.

It’s all a little jumbled to me. I’m not sure I liked this story. I wanted to go through it in detail because I keep hearing how terrific Steven Millhauser is. I just recently discovered he’s one of Seth Fried’s go-to guys, for heaven’s sake, so he’s someone I want to know more about. But this story, while amusing on the Twilight Zone level, didn’t quite connect for me. I’m willing to accept that it’s my problem, that I’m not sophisticated enough to connect something that’s “off” in as many places as this is.

It was a good read, and I’m interested in some of the concepts. But as a whole it remains out of my grasp, without the tantalizing glimmer that makes me eager for more. Maybe I need some Miracle Polish.

Addendum: This story appeared in BASS 2012; on re-read, I had some additional thoughts, posted here.