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New Yorker Fiction Reviews: Thomas McGuane's "Stars"

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker. If you were looking for poop jokes and cheap laughs, please check my Twitter feed...

Issue: June 24th

Story: "Stars"

Author: Thomas McGuane

Plot: A young woman, Jessica, is studying astronomy at a university in Montana. As her daily interactions with people become more and more frustrating and angering, she takes to hiking as a way to escape. At all turns she finds people reacting to her in ways that reflect her abrasive and rigidly stoic attitude. She cannot seem to have fulfilling and warm relations with people; she does not even try. Ultimately, she finds solace in the loneliness of the woods. In other words...there is no plot.

Review: Thomas McGuane is part of the "Montana school" of writers that includes guys like Jim Harrison, Russel Chatham and others whose fiction and art deals mostly with the lost souls who inhabit the vast, harsh, lonely landscape of the American West. McGuane's stories are almost always set in the woods or on the water, and his characters are hopeless (sometimes hapless) eccentrics and loners determined to fight the system even if no one else seems to care about their fight or not. They are people on the fringes of significance in normal productive society, even in a society that already on the fringes.

McGuane happens to occupy a special place in my heart. I started reading his novels in college, around the time I was starting to get serious about becoming a writer, and also around the time I was having my first solo adventures as an outdoorsman. I love his early novels like The Sporting Club and Ninety-Two in the Shade. But, frankly, his later stuff has gotten a little "pretty" and plotless and lost it's edge. Sadly, this story falls into that category.

For example, while it's really great to sink into McGuane's description of the way this story's main character, Jessica, watches tiny bubbles in a small pool in a stream she's hiking beside, or the way he describes the light hitting the tops of the pines, and what kinds of trees there are and all that stuff, the story is woefully short on  plot. Furthermore, the main character is not likable and the "resolution," if you can call it that, is barely perceptible.

This (quite short) story is essentially a picaresque following a few months in the life of a main character who is, in my opinion, pretty pathetic. I must imagine this as a fragment of a novel, because it doesn't work as a short story. In fact, it was kind of a chore to read.

Jessica is cold and abrasive, and as a result she finds society cold and abrasive in return. What a surprise, right? Only, Jessica has no desire to change or to seek ways to make people like her. She just wants to withdraw further and further away into the woods. Sorry, but there's nothing intriguing about that. Drama relies on conflict and resistance, and a character's response to resistance. A character has to "want" something and be blocked from that, then we see what the character is made of by how they respond to those obstacles. But if, like in this case, the character wants something very easy--to be away from people--then there are very few blocks to that and all she has to do is go into the woods. A "story" has to consist of more than just a catalog of the characters negative encounters with people.

There is some subtext involving "stars" and the fact that she is an astronomer and lives her whole mental life in space, where there are no people, and about how that has affected her soul, yada-yada-yada, as well as a strange encounter with a trapper who is about to shoot a wolf he's just caught, but it's all pretty thinly developed and I'd have to read this story about five more times in order to do McGuane the favor of piecing it all together. And that is something I'm not going to do.

In my opinion, this story is pretty forgettable. It's a reminder of how writers, when they reach a certain stature in the "literary" community, can start publishing anything they want to without the obligation to entertain the reader in any way. If this is the best of McGuane's upcoming short story collection, I'll continue to read and re-read his old novels, thank you.

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