June 24, 2013


By Thomas McGuane
~3600 words

A depressed astronomer finds herself unraveling after she witnesses a hunter kill a wolf.

When Jessica lashes out against the hunter in the first section of the story, it comes across as understandable given her appreciation of nature as expressed in the opening paragraphs. But as the narrative proceeds, it becomes clear that her angry reaction is part of a general hatred of the world including those who care most about her. In the end she decides to take a leave of absence from work and ends up walking "day after day in the hills and mountains around town."

The story begins with a compelling scene but goes downhill from there. Unlikeable protagonists such as Jessica are always a challenge, but they can be successfully developed in several ways, such as: 1) having them make interesting comments about the world or, alternatively, banal comments with interesting language; 2) having them demonstrate self-awareness about their weaknesses; and 3) having them change or evolve over the course of the story. I'm sure there are other possibilities, but these are some of the most prominent.

Of the three, the only one Jessica comes close to is #2: "She wondered if she was just too inflexible" she thinks at one point and "There was no denying her malice" at another. She even seeks counseling, though of course she ends up hating her therapist and, in the end, never seems genuinely bothered by her failings. They're more of an intellectual conundrum for her. Consequently, she is never more than an intellectual conundrum for the reader.

Regarding the other two points (1 and 3), Jessica shows no personal growth (if anything her trajectory is a downward spiral), and her way of thinking about the world is vapid and pedestrian. Her most significant insights are that "she might have been happier as a dog" (which is quickly contradicted) and that "The way geologists are liberated in time, […] astronomers are freed by space" (though later she wonders why she ever became an astronomer).

Similarly, the story's diction is worn and sometimes puzzling: we read of the "crystalline depths" of the plunge pool, a "minor wave of optimism, ascribable to either caffeine or the sunrise," the "gooberish" manner of the therapist, and Jessica's "sightless" exit through the reception area. There's even a dangling participle toward the end ("shivering and waving her on in disgust," which refers to Andy, not the chill).

I do appreciate McGuane's brevity, as I think that "the longer the better" is a temptation too many authors succumb to. But brevity is one thing; incompleteness is another. And "Stars," with its underdeveloped protagonist and unpolished language, feels incomplete.


1 comment:

  1. Couldn't agree more. This one missed the boat. Or rather, swam up and clung to the gunnels of the boat and wouldn't let go.