Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Thomas McGuane’s “Stars” was originally published in the June 24, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.

June 24, 2013

I have read this already, but as I’m on holiday I’m not sure when I’ll be able to post my thoughts. Soon I hope! Until then, enjoy!

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By |2013-06-17T10:35:21-04:00June 17th, 2013|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Thomas McGuane|14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. Betsy June 22, 2013 at 10:57 am

    I’ve been looking forward to “Stars”, by Thomas McGuane, all week. There is something about the way he writes that puts me in mind of getting a long, really interesting letter. Perhaps it’s that I know the story is likely to take place in Montana, and I like that. And perhaps it’s because I know that the writer is about my age. I like looking forward to hearing what someone my age has to say. And perhaps it’s something to do with the way McGuane writes: he’s not above some compelling appreciation of the natural world, and he’s rather straightforward about the ways being human doesn’t work as well as we would like. And there’s often a dark humor, although this particular time, it’s a more of a dark perspective, rather than out-right humor..

    Jessica, the heroine, so to speak, of “Stars”, is a quite terrifying person, from my point of view, being, in her own words, “inflexible”, and in mine, a loner nonpareil. The story seems to ask – what if you were stuck in a nature like this – obsessed by the thingness of things and not social in the extreme, not empathetic, but, unfortunately, just barely aware of how you strike people? And what if, from there, you begin to go off the rails?

    At one point Jessica insults a man’s proffer of a drink: “No top brands?” At another, she walks in such a fog of her own thought that she bumps into some people on the sidewalk, inviting abuse – a man insults her and a woman hits her with an umbrella. There’s a riff on where “thinking” will get you that pulls me up short.

    What I really like about Jessica is that she’s just self-aware enough to remind you of yourself. The way she has edges of comprehension of herself is probably a little like anybody’s real sense of self versus other, although she’s got a nature of her own that is way more problematic than most.

    So what’s with the title? “Stars”? I kind of like the way that works. Jessica is an astronomer, but she appears to be finding their study to be insufficient to her present predicament.

    Having run into a man in the woods who is going to shoot a wolf, she is hit by an overwhelming urge to shoot the man. This occasion is the occasion of her ‘seeing stars’ – feeling murderous is the occasion that leads her to think that she is “losing her marbles”.

    So if I were to think of this story as a letter, what’s it saying? Well, nothing I want to sum up in a phrase, but it’s something like a riff on how the heck do we all live with the abundance of rage and natural selfishness we’re born with? Jessica’s solution is to go deeper and deeper into the woods – to follow the call of the wild.

    I don’t think it’s too much to wonder if this story is in response to Newtown and the Boston Marathon; McGuane poses that question rather directly when early on in the story, Jessica tells the wolf-killer she’d like to kill him and he replies, “I don’t think you know how hard it is to pull a trigger…”

    And she replies, “You obviously don’t read the papers….People aren’t having any trouble pulling the trigger these days.”

    What interests me about the story is how it lets me think about how much each of us is naturally a loner, alone in our thoughts, comfortable with how we see things, and unaware of bumping into people, although Jessica is obviously an extreme case. But this has been a year of extreme cases in America.

    It saddens me that when Jessica turns to counseling for help, the man she sees is a patent fool. But we know this for a fact: although our perception of mental illness has become acute, our ability to relieve its terrible pain remains inconsequential. Our current treatment for serious mental illness is more like amputation than anything else. It’s interesting that Jessica is a professor and has announced to a colleague, “I’m losing my marbles.”

    But we actually know there is no particular path for her to take that is likely to work or stick.

    As the recently revised Diagnostic Manual on mental illness reveals, we have a host of diagnoses, and an equal host of treatments that are, as of yet, approximate. We can see further and more accurately into the stars of time than we can see into the brain and its mind, let alone its comprehension of good and evil.

    So when we part with Jessica, she is following the call of the wild. But just like Jack London ultimately takes a grave view of the beneficence of nature, Thomas McGuane also puts me in mind of dark possibilities. Death by nature and becomingTed Kazinski are the extremities that come to mind. I don’t have a good feeling about where Jessica is headed.

    One of the things I like about this story is that Jessica is a woman; at first we don’t really see what we are looking at. If she were a man – well, we would jump to conclusions much sooner.

    I am glad to have had this story that strikes me as a letter. McGuane reminds me, as wisdom should, there are no easy answers. It’s somewhat calming to think that.

    But the story is a story; a good story takes you smack into new territory and invites wonder, invites thought.

  2. Ken June 22, 2013 at 2:21 pm

    I liked this very much. I found this meditation on the truly misanthropic personality fascinating. Jessica is something we haven’t seen that much–a female misanthrope and Betsy is right to point out that the story is less predictable with her as a female.

    The first encounter with the hunter is very interesting because at the start I figured her for some sort of soft-hearted politically-correct guilty liberal. Instead, her feeling for animals (like that of another sociopath–Tony Soprano)is not because she’s some PETA type but is a sign of her misanthropy. The fact that this incident isn’t completely fleshed out adds a nice layer of ambiguity.

    Once we get back to the city and her “normal” life she becomes easier to read as a misanthrope and person with some mental health issues. Yet as the story goes along we realize she could become a murderer. The parallels I saw were to a New Yorker story a few months ago about a female professor in Alabama who slaughtered several fellow faculty members at a departmental meeting. I was fascinated that Jessica is mostly angry that she didn’t kill the hunter. The hunter is a nice character–he could be some Thoreauvian savant (and he has elements of that) but he’s also a businessman.

    I agree that her destiny is not good. Either madness and freezing to death or increased destructiveness. This is perhaps my favorite McGuane story and the best story since the William Trevor piece in January.

  3. Betsy June 22, 2013 at 6:46 pm

    I notice that in his interview with Deborah Treisman this week, McGuane makes a point of being on the side of the wolf, particularly in light of the way some people over react to them. He notes that Jessica might be the kind of person, given her affinity for the stars, who could take their point of view. It is very clear that this story has some roots in local issues having to do with wolf control. I note that the man who is shooting the wolf wants to use it for jewelry. Even so – the story is not a simple one, and that’s what makes it so interesting.

  4. Dan Madeley June 24, 2013 at 1:11 am

    I thought Jessica was an interesting character. I’m personally drawn to people who dont feel comfortable fitting in to society, and have enough sand to lash out about it. Especially obviously intelligent and perceptive people like Jessica. For me the title is a good metaphor for the reality Jessica lives in. It’s a world of cause and effect. at one time she defines her own trek throgh life as, “always bumping into people” or something similar to that. I found Jessica’s terse and anti-social responses to people kind of charming. The best one was when she simply said, “No” to her boyfriends father when he asked if she’d like to see his cane poles. At first I thought, “how rude!” But then I realizes, he had just a moment before said the exact same thing to her, only not as simply and directly. She asked if he was interests in hearing her talk about her interests, stars, and he totally blew her off. Why is it acceptable to say you don’t want to hear about astronomy, but rude if you don’t want to hear about fishing. Also, I think Jessica has enough self awareness so that she’s going to be okay. She tells her friend she needs help, and seeks it. It’s not for her, but we understand her reasoning. Maybe she’ll continue her longer, and longer walks, to where, “no man has gone before.” If she finds that venturing into the unknown helps her cope with her mind, well, there’s plenty more where that came from.

  5. Dan Madeley June 24, 2013 at 1:13 am

    Sorry for the typos, I’m in my iPad and I stink at typing with it. I’ll do better next time.

  6. Betsy June 25, 2013 at 8:22 am

    Hi, Dan. Your defense of Jessica is interesting – I especially like your point about how the father doesn’t want to hear about astronomy. I skipped right over that – as if, just as you suggest, it’s okay if men are rude, not so okay if women are.

    Also in her defense is the way she encountered her murderous impulse: she had no preparation for the scene with the man and the trapped wolf.
    The American love of legal process would not immediately suggest itself to her; she has to respond in shock to the shocking scene; she has to respond with rage to its outrageous logic.

    While the story centers on the Montana wolf debate, it works pretty well as a template for other shocking realities. What if we stumbled upon the actual scene at the center of any of a host of American moral debates – our first reaction might be disorienting rage. In that context, one has to rest the mind and soul.

    But still, I question whether Jessica has the resources to right herself. Is she Amy Bishop? Is she Jane Goodall? That’s not clear, which is, I think, why the story is great.

  7. Mimi June 25, 2013 at 8:34 am

    In The New Yorkers fiction, something about the title “Stars” and the photo of a man carrying a dead wolf slung over his shoulder was sad and yet thought proving. It reached inside. I had never read Thomas McQuane, and as the story opened I was not disappointed. Beautifully written and full of suspense. Here was Jessica, an astronomer walking and confronting a man about to shoot an injured wolf. Perhaps she was recovering from some inward problem, possibly attempting to find herself. We, the readers, don’t know. What we do know is she told it as she saw it, and told the man she would kill him. Yet she didn’t. This turns out to be the spring-board of the story.
    As the story then goes on, it reveals Jessica’s character as blunt, and walking, seeking something or looking for something to hang onto.
    But why this continued, this walking and searching we don’t know.. There was nothing subtle or not, that explained her dilemma. She found it uncomfortable to have a relationship with anybody, which might have been the connection of the far away stars. She felt comfortable with the environment, but not with people.
    I loved McQuarnes images, his ambiguity Ken mentioned. McQuanes talent for me was the thing that also disturbed me..I loved his character building, Jessicas non-conformity, her outspoken ways.
    I had the Ah moment at the ending of the story. So if I had a problem, it was in attempting to understand the theme. Even though I was completely captured by the writing, what should I take away from this? Was it cruelty to animals? Or was it that we are all animals? Or both.
    So in the end possibly Jessica understood herself by hearing the cry of the wolves. Still not attached to the human factor. i am left wondering. I look forward to another story by Thomas McQuane.

  8. Betsy June 26, 2013 at 10:18 pm

    Mimi, your remarks about theme are really interesting. In a wonderful interview that McGuane gave to the Paris review in 1985 (The art of Fiction # 89), he talks about the importance that animals have for him. And he also talks about trying to make “an authentic presentation of women”, especially because he has three daughters. He says, “I wonder what type of place I’m helping to prepare for them, what societal voices I’m perpetuating for them.” And he talks about the role that the outsider plays. It’s a rich conversation, 20 pages of it. I recommend it.

  9. Mimi June 27, 2013 at 2:37 pm

    Betsy, thank you so much for leading me to the “Paris Review” interview with Thomas McGuane. The interview is very long, and had everything you mention, and gives much insight into what McGuane is about. I was a bit surprised at the many mentions of “humor’ as I couldn’t find much of that in the one story I’ve read. Since I haven’t read McGuane before, or don’t recall his stories, I can only rely on my own take of “Stars.”

    Not to get technical about “short stories, ” but there are general assumptions of what constitutes a short story, like characters, plot, setting, entertain, etc, and of course, “Theme.”

    Theme, the thing the story is about, was my problem in the story “Stars.” In the series of incidents which McGuane used to create his story, he opened very well with the setting, the lone hiker (Jessica), and the dialogue with the man about to shoot a wolf. Jessica’s extreme reaction, appeared to set the tone of the story. So I gathered at this point the conflict was to be between the hiker, a young woman astronomer. (which might account for the title), and focus on the current problems to many of killing animals or not.. But no, instead the story was to be about the ability of Jessica to find herself in a world she rejected, but loved the environment.

    There was much to like about the scenes in McGuane’s story, but I never felt comfortable that Jessica was fully developed. Even with her apparent lonely rejection of the world she lived in, I didn’t feel the necessary sympathy to make me empathetic. I was entertained, but the character was more of a step-child, rather than fully organic. The dialogue helped, still, I never knew her. Perhaps the environment she loved, cloaked her in a mystery I couldn’t crack.

    As Edgar Allan Poe is often quoted, “if you start with a gun in the beginning of your story, you better have it somewhere else in your story.”

    McGuane’s story “Stars,” did bring the idea of the cruelty to wolves in the ending, in beautiful imagery. So it seemed to tie together Jessica’s quest to find herself. Should she have shot the man who was about to kill the wolf? Had she let her own belief’s down? Was this then the theme? That we as humans are less than other animals.. Or what?

    In defense of my reaction of unfulfilled connections in Thomas McGuane’s story, I had always believed the theme was the thing that appeared throughout a short story or a novel, like a subtle melody, or a gentle wind you hardly feel, but it’s always there.

    I apologize for any misjudgments, as I am more of a T.C.Boyle, reader (another environmentalist) but found it interesting to look at the environmental problems through Mr. McGuane’s eyes, and for the most part, he didn’t disappoint.

  10. Betsy June 28, 2013 at 8:17 am

    Hi Mimi,
    So glad you found that Paris Review article interesting.

    I would argue that theme is often a braided thing – that the story can be a means to express ideas & impulses that are at conflict with with one another.

    In this story, you get a heightened sense of American extremes – the confused American response to the gun crisis, as well as a desire to preserve the wild, as well as the rage that is the first response to a wrong that suddenly confronts us.

    McGuane suggests that it may only be someone as extreme as Jessica who is able to actually see stars – actually understand what wildness is. But whether she is Ahab or Thoreau is not resolved. I like that ambiguity. After all, we don’t know who is going to lead us out of our gun crisis, or the mental health crisis, or our crisis as custodians of the earth. Some of these people who might be our leaders may initially appear to be nuts. Some may actually be nuts. Some may be so anti-social that regardless of their heart being in the right place, they accomplish nothing. And others, perhaps Jessica, will be stumbling blocks.

    There is a John Brown quality to her that disturbs me, and yet I think that disturbance is McGuane’s point.

    In that disturbance lies McGuane’s theme, I think. He’s braided together some strands that are not very neat. That lack of subtle melody is one of the strands.

    Because the plight of the wolf in Montana is enraging, he’s chosen a character who is capable of feeling rage.

    So the story pulls at its seams, given that rage is at its heart so difficult to manage. Unlike Ahab, though, Jessica admits that she may be “losing my marbles.” So the story’s purpose is to put us at the white heat: that moment of choice. when you see something wrong, what do you do?

    Unlike someone like Hawthorne, who might express a theme in a series of symbols or images, McGuane seems to express himself in a series of personal interactions: Jessica and the wolf killer; Jessica and the boyfirend, Jessica and the father, Jessica and the colleague, Jessica and the therapist. Of course, there are images: the wolf in the trap, the wolf-claw jewelry, the fishing poles, and the trail itself. The trail – the wandering, the being in the wild – that is why Jessica saw what she saw. And the stars. But Jessica is “Seeing Stars” – she’s been assaulted by a sight ~ somewhat the way we are assaulted by her.

    Whether Jessica is John Brown or Thoreau remains to be seen. And which nature will be the effective one remains to be seen. So I would argue the theme arises out of all this straining at the seams. When you see something that is wrong – you see stars. but then what do you do? And will what you do be pretty?

  11. Mimi June 28, 2013 at 3:39 pm

    Hi Betsy. Wow! I love the way you think. But aren’t we saying the same thing? Yes, many themes can be “braided” into a story, either/or by dialogue, scenes, etc. I still remember my first reaction to “Stars.” Not that the writing itself was cloudy, but if there were separate themes, ie, Jessica in the “stars” looking for something beyond to hold onto, and connecting that with the fate of animals. As a reader, I do like a story complex enough to make me think. As a writer, it’s an obligation to make the story clear. Just the way I see it, as usual. I’m at work, so please excuse errors. Thanks, Betsy, it was so nice of you.

  12. Betsy June 28, 2013 at 9:56 pm

    Hi Mimi –

    Well, after writing that, I was thinking: you are right – subtlety of theme isn’t where McGuane was going with that! He seems to really enjoy a heightened situation. (Take a look at “Gallatin Canyon”.) I think I have to admit that I like the wildness of his method and kind of enjoy where it leads. It’s my cup of tea.

    If you like clarity, you really should take a look a Jhumpa Lahiri and her recent “Brotherly Love”. There’s an exquisite clarity there. What did you think of “Mastiff”. by Joyce Carol Oates? Would love to know what you think of either of those stories. But take your time!

    So nice to have you join us.

  13. Mary Beth Green July 18, 2013 at 7:55 pm

    I live in Montana–in fact, in Bozeman, where this story is set. I have a somewhat different take on it than some of the other posters. I didn’t think Jessica was becoming unhinged solely because of the wolf incident; I also found many references to living in the “digital age” as being disorienting and confusing to her–as it should be to us as readers as well.

    Her manner of finding solace and healing in walking spoke to me. I think it could well be a better form of therapy than the traditional type.

    McGuane knows Bozeman and Montana very well, as his writing shows. The complexity of living in our times–even tucked away in the northern Rockies as we are–is what stands out for me in this story.

  14. Betsy July 18, 2013 at 9:32 pm

    Welcome Mary Beth, so good to hear from a Montanan, a Bozemanian, in fact. Your thoughts have made me go back to re-read the story.

    McGuane truly does not like the wolf-trapper and his casual killing. Like the precious Indian tigers of old, who are now reduced to being a matched set of tiger-claw earrings in my box, the essence of wolf-life will be trivialized as an eBay attraction. The wolf-hunter, who is wearing boots with “undershot heels” says, “My old man used to tell me that you have to kill something every day, even if it’s a fly.” This is too casual. this is not killing in the service of survival, this is killing in the service of whim.

    I notice Jessica’s thought, that “the wolf stood for everything she cared about, everything wild.” These words stand in for McGuane himself; it is what he says in his “Page-turner” interview – that when we lose an animal to extinction, we have lost an important part of our universe.

    After a few weeks to think about it, it seems quite obvious that McGuane means what he says – that what is wild in our lives is beautiful and precious, and that the wolf-trapper’s casual cynicism (that the “chainsaws” are inevitable, unstoppable) should be a warning to us. In retrospect, to stand up to that kind of cynicism, you need a lone-wolf kind of human like Jessica. Mary Beth, when you say that solace and healing is to be found by walking, you make the most telling of points, not only on behalf of McGuane’s Jessica, but on behalf of the rest of us as well.

    But I also wanted to look for the “disorienting” digital age that you mention. Right away, we see that the tools of Jessica’s trade such as the RHESSI spectroscopic imager mean that “the stars are no longer a mystery to her”.

    eBay is a trivializing force as well: life is not to be respected but used as a trinket. Jessica stands in line for coffee, “behind four people staring absently at their phones”, the emphasis on “absently”. Later, her phone messages pile up in her inbox, and she falls asleep to the static of the radio. She wonders why she became an astronomer. Walking every day now, and walking further and further and walking into the night, “her eyesight grew exceptionally sharp and she could see ravens in the dark.”

    I am sympathetic. There was a year when I walked two hours a day into the wilderness behind my place (the Quabbin), and after a while, I got used to coming back in the dark. One winter day, I came upon a coyote sunning himself in the lee of a snow dune on the lake, and when he ran off, I saw there were two, headed off across the bleak lake in the direction of the Prescott Peninsula – where people are forbidden. Another time, I looked into the hollow of a very tall dead tree stump and found myself looking directly at a sleeping porcupine. And one night, I heard a turkey break out of the top of a pine tree directly above my head. And that spring, I heard the woodcock peenting their spring calls. Once I lay down and slept in the leaves, exhausted from work and confusion. Walking in the wilderness is surely a solace.

    McGuane has made Jessica purposely difficult and unromantic, his point being that only some one so toughminded can take on the task of saving the wild. I was misled by her peculiarities my first time around, peculiarities that seemed less Thoreau-ian and more simply unbalanced.

    McGuane says in his last paragraph that “she began to imagine voices”. I get it, though, that he means that it is nature itself speaking to her – not the radio, not the cell-phone, and not the radio telescope.

    I think it’s the writer’s job to make it tough for the reader. No pablum. This story has been poking me for several weeks. I apologize to Mr. McGuane that probably my first impulse was to want it to be Nancy Drew in a Roadster saving the earth. But that’s his point exactly. He got me. It’s not that easy. Saving the earth is not that easy.

    Here he is, proposing a real life female original, and I want to lock her up! And me, the woman who made it her duty to walk the Quabbin every day for a year, until one of students, bored of hearing about it, said, “Yes, Mrs. Pelz, but aren’t you afraid?” Actually, yes, sometimes I was.

    Should Jessica be afraid? Maybe more of the humans than of the wolves.

    Anyway, Mary Beth, thank you for nudging me to re-read “Stars”. I see it much more clearly now. And, as always, McGuane can be so wicked, so tart, so enjoyable: as when Jessica buys a pair of shoes, or when she remarks to her host about the Scotch, “No top brands?”.

    McGuane is a top brand. But that doesn’t mean he’s easy.

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