- Embracing Otherness
Midway through his short story collection Margins of Tolerance (2012), Eric Sasson asks if an Avril Lavigne reference dates his piece. The truthful answer is “yes.” A fair portion of Margins feels about eight years older than it actually is. Maybe it’s the clunky pop culture references, or the use of terms like “metrosexual” and “hot monkey sex,” but there’s something hopelessly Bravo circa 2005 about Sasson’s collection. His stories vacillate between narrative and rant, with the latter responsible for the lion’s share of the datedness. In light of the recent “Don’t Say Gay” bill, “The Coming Revolution,” a story about male homosexuality in Russia should prove timely, but it’s hard to take Sasson seriously when he lapses into language like “enlightenment will soon rear its rainbow head and allow for fairies to skip arm-in-arm.” To be fair, Sasson’s narrator in “The Coming Revolution” expresses hope that his words will one day sound dated, that the idea of kissing a man in public in Russia will no longer be subversive or scandalous.
Nevertheless, when Sasson veers into rant, it feels labored, more blog post than story. In “Dear Guy in 24B,” a gay man, Todd, recounts sitting next to a portly, bearded man on an airplane and how their legs touched for an uncomfortable period of time. The situation itself is intriguing—how does one respond to a stranger’s leg thrust against theirs? These are the micro-aggressions a gay man must deal with on a daily basis. Though certainly more stressful, it’s easy enough to react to someone calling you a faggot. Puzzling out something as mundane (yet as strangely intricate) as sitting next to a stranger for an extended period of time with no way of leaving the situation is infinitely more complicated. It’s unfortunate that the story’s form isn’t as nuanced as the situation Sasson sets up. His narrator is tiresome, and Todd’s extended diatribe rendered as a fictional letter is more exhausting than illuminating. When he asks, “Can we? Move on? Please?”, we’re ready to.
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Sasson is at his best in Margins when critiquing assimilationist gay politics. While I found the lack of variety in protagonists a bit disappointing, Sasson does use them to illustrate a point—even the most “normative” gay men walk a narrow line between tolerance and discrimination. For Chase and Parker, a suburban couple in the collection’s titular story, the choice to be themselves or “TV-sitcom-kindhearted-next-door-eunuchs” ultimately leads to the collapse of their relationship. In “Cruising,” Sasson’s tender characterization of men who have anonymous sex in steam rooms helps his reader arrive at a simple truth—assimilation doesn’t work for everyone. For Sasson’s narrator, unattached sex is a reminder that “we are crude pitiful creatures who end up as dusty afterthoughts in the ground.” “Life is too short not to be ridiculous,” he continues, “Which is why I have sex in the steam room.”
However, Sasson isn’t just wrestling with assimilation in his stories, but within his own prose as well. He has a legitimate critique—that contemporary gay culture needs to evolve yet still embrace its Otherness—but, as noted earlier, his protagonists are eerily similar and speak from the same position. Margins seems so rooted in a body-conscious, white gay male perspective that Sasson can’t break out of it, if not for a lack of wanting to. Sadly, women are largely nonexistent in Margins, aside from a few side characters and a joke about “lesbian bed death.” Queer men of color also make few appearances. Those that do appear are, for the most part, objects of desire, propelling privileged narrators into moments of realization à la Roger’s “first African experience” in “Getting There” or Connor’s stalking of Peruvian waiter, Javier, in “Remains of a Once Great Civilization.” Javier rejects Connor’s advances before...