December 31, 2020: “Our Brains and the Brains of Miniature Sharks” by Pablo Piñero Stillmann

Happy New Year’s Eve, Story366!

I’m not finished yet, but am just about there, but still: I did it! I once again made it through a whole leap year of books and posts without missing a day. I don’t often congratulate myself—quite the opposite, actually—but I’ll congratulate myself today. Yesterday, I ran down what I’ll be doing going forward, and for my last post, I promised to come up with a best-of list of story collections released in 2020.

But you know what? That’s a bigger task than I’m ready for today. I have the list of collections I’ve covered this year, but when I started to make my ranked list, I realized that I didn’t remember the ones I covered earlier and my list was trending toward books I posted on more recently. I could definitely have put something up here, but since I know how much these lists mean to writers, not to mention me, I think I’d like to spend more time with it, do it right, do the year justice. So stay tuned

So what do I put here instead, the last preamble of the last post of the year? I think I’ll keep it simple—daylight is running out and we’d like to go for a walk—and say this: I really love short stories. I’ve read well over a thousand this year—at least three from every book, plus many books from which I’ve read more (or all)—and while I look forward to waking up tomorrow and not having this task waiting for me, I’ll still miss it. Desperately. It’s truly been an honor to read all of these authors’ works, to spend some time with their art, and to have made short stories my pursuit. I am always going to love stories, am always going to read stories, and I will always champion them, whether I’m writing, editing, publishing or teaching. My library is now even more vast than it was before, and my understanding of the art is 366 days better. Story every day, to be sure!

Thanks to every who sent me a book or a suggestion, thanks to all of you who have read, liked, commented and shared the posts, and most of all, thanks to my family, the Karen and our two boys for their endless patience as I dedicated so much time to this this. I’ll see all of you on the flip side of the New Year, will be back before you know it.

For the last entry of the year, I’ll be doing the final and most recent book in the Moon City Short Fiction Award series, Our Brains and the Brains of Miniature Sharks by Pablo Piñero Stillmann, which won Moon City Press‘s 2019 Moon City Short Fiction Award and was published earlier this year. I used the last six slots of 2020 to cover the six collections that have won this contest so far, more of a revisit than a review, and I have to say, this has—with all the bias in the world—been my favorite week of the year. I of course knew all of these books quite intimately going in, but I hadn’t read some of them in years. It’s been a real pleasure, to not only look at them again, but to see them in a different light for this project. Since Pablo’s book came out earlier this year (and the first one I typeset myself), I was probably most familiar, memory-wise, of this book going in. Still, I immensely enjoyed the time I spent with it today, so, for the last time this year, let’s talk about it.

The first story in the collection is “Versus the Brown Socks,” about a kid in Mexico whose parents just got divorced. The main way he passes time, and copes with his new reality, is by watching the syndicated show Buenas tardes con Omar, a variety show hosted by the loquacious and uncanny Omar. His favorite segment is the serialized “The Adventures of Débora and Gastón,” about two sock puppets that have adventures and solve mysteries and crimes. The boy watches religiously, basically centering his whole life around Omar’s teachings. When Buenas tardes con Omar has suddenly vanished, replaced in the time slot by something else, the boy is lost, desperate to know what happened next to his beloved sock puppets, each and every episode a cliffhanger. The boy finds some solace in a classmate, whom he meets at the courthouse, both of them there to testify in their parents’ divorce hearings, insult on top of injury to the highest degree.

“The Longest Earthquake” is about a man researching his roots, mostly through how his grandparents met. To note, the grandfather was a famous mapmaker, so to tell this story (which is somewhat metafictional), the narrator uses symbols, like from a map key, to stand for the different characters and places in the story (which I’m not going to try to replicate here—but it’s a bunch of little Zapf Dingbats-type things that I couldn’t track down here right away). The story starts with the grandfather leaving his country when a new president is elected, fearing what will become of his homeland, going so far as to fear for his life. He settles in a new country and begins his life as an in-demand mapmaker, one who is more artist than geographer, all his maps drawn and painted by hand. He also visits a pharmacy every day for a “tonic,” and years into his exile, realizes the beautiful young clerk and the pharmacy is the owners’ little girl, all grown up. This clerk—seventeen, half the grandfather’s age at the time—occupies his head, and of course, they eventually get together and have children (hence the story). The grandfather’s worst fears come true, however, as after that hated president in his home country is elected a fifth time, he turns his country into a dictatorship, sending the narrator’s grandfather into a tailspin, his tale into this story.

“The First Man in Space,” which we published in Moon City Review a few years before this collection came out (note, the collection was also the runner-up the year before, so I knew Pablo’s work very well by this time), is about a man who befriends a couple, a couple who is working on a rocket ship in their barn. The couple has a quandary: They only know how to fit enough fuel in the rocket to get out into space, but not enough for a return trip. The protagonist, Foroux, whispers the word “rope,” as in Why not tie a rope to it and pull it back when it’s done? This leads the couple to stick Foroux in the spaceship, to make him the first man in space. Unlucky for Foroux, something happens to his tether while he’s up there and he ends up being not only the first man in space, but the first man lost in space.

This leads me to the title story, “Our Brains and the Brains of Miniature Sharks,” which I’ll focus on today. This story’s about a young man who not only suffers from depression, but also suffers from loneliness. To solve each problem, he seeks the aid of psilocybin mushrooms and an online dating service, respectively, which gives us a sweet setup for a sweet story.

The idea for the magic mushrooms came from a TV interview our hero saw, an interview with a Dr. Bengoechea a researcher hoping to find a breakthrough. Our hero meets with the doctor for therapy—the mushrooms aren’t quite ready yet—but also runs into him out in publish, at bars and cafés, and the men become friends of sorts.

The dating app is skewed just as much, as our hero realizes that the matches are simply based on physical attraction (it’s a lot like Tinder), that the women he’s meeting aren’t all that interesting … though even bad dates are better than being alone, he is forced to admit.

Oh, and I forgot to mention, as part of his mania, he also sees the number 39 everywhere, Flight 039 crashing, thirty-nine pigs dying in a truck crash, that sort of thing. On his dates he has to make himself not bring that up—because it’s not sexy—and in his therapy sessions he has to force himself to do the opposite, fearing this extra malady might exclude him the shroom trials.

We haven’t even gotten to the miniature shark angle yet, as Dr. Bengoechea has realized that the brain patterns of depressed miniature sharks is very similar to that of depressed people, making them ideal test subjects for his funny fungi and all kinds of other science-type stuff. Too bad this leads to him being removed from his post for unethical and unapproved experimentation, which our hero finds out by walking into his therapy session and finding another shrink in Bengoechea’s seat.

I don’t want to go much further into this story, but I love how Pablo weaves all of these storylines together, someone making a coherent story, yet at the sometime, somehow mimicking this type of shallow descent into madness. It’s a tricky maneuver, but Pablo’s up to the task, making this one of my favorite pieces in the book.

Pablo Piñero Stillmann writes a tremendously absurd and heartfelt book with Our Brains and the Brains of Miniature Sharks, the most recent book I published, due out right about the time COVID hit. Not a good time to have a good debut—we canceled AWP and his signings/readings/etc. right when things went down—and I fear not enough of the world has been exposed to his brilliance. I recommend that you pick a copy of this book up, as you’ll find a collection of short stories that extends, redefines, and perfects what a “story” can be, presenting tales of keen insight, laugh-out-loud humor, and huge flashes of a unique creativity. I love this book, love Pablo’s writing, and hope the world, when it comes back, can give this book and this author the celebration he deserves.