As found in her new book, The Suburban Swindle, Jackie Corley's stories would seem to be classifiable as a kind of slice-of-life realism, episodes, some quite circumscribed and plotless, that add a little fictional flesh to bare-bones themes of cultural anomie announced in the first paragraphs of the very first such episode, "Blood in Jersey":
What are we? What we are is oiled sadness. Dead garden snakes and dried-up slugs. We're what happens when you're bored and scared too long, when you sit in piles in some dude's basement trying to get the guy's white supremacist brother to shut the fuck up for five fucking minutes. You sit in those hordes and some emo kid takes out a bag of clumpy, dried-up weed and shakes it like he's accomplished something.
What this is is Jersey. This is fear so thick and buried under, you pretend you're not on fire. The boys are brawling on the front lawn and coming back down to the basement with finger-mark welts on their necks and bloody, rubbery scratches on their chests.
But while most of the stories do provide a brief and immediate immersion in the "oiled sadness" of suburban New Jersey youth, the aimlessness and alienation to which we are exposed might seem overly familiar, a little too reminiscent of various movie versions of alienated youth (although I nevertheless do not doubt the accuracy of the portrayal, nor the authenticity of its sources). And if The Suburban Swindle was just another depiction of youthful discontent with suburban life, it would not really be able to make much of a claim on our attention. However, the primary appeal of the book, at least for me, lies not in the details of life as endured in New Jersey but in those of its stylistic and formal features already to be perceived in "Blood in Jersey" and its opening paragraphs.
The pruned-back structure of a story like this (admittedly an especially brief one, although all of the stories, even those of a more conventional length, are similarly committed to an overall narrative minimalism) ultimately brings an increased emphasis on the language with which such a lightly plotted story is presented, on the story as the unfolding of its language. Often in this sort of narratively truncated realism "style" is notably de-emphasized, made as "plain" as possible, but here no attempt is being made to conceal the "writing" that, almost literally, turns out to everything in "Blood in Jersey," not just the vehicle for plot and character development. The first several stories in The Suburban Swindle likewise deflect the reader's initial interest in storytelling and characterization toward their own verbal flourishes, but even the stories that do introduce incident and more fully sketched-out characters still call attention to the prose with which such elements are deployed more that we might expect in conventional realism.
One might say that the "radical exclusion" manifest in these stories goes beyond the implicit narrowing of focus to be found in all short stories and extends to the exclusion of any extraneous plot devices and gestures at character "depth" that inhibit immediacy of expression. Of course, one could also suggest that the sparseness in plot and character only reinforces the essential realism of the stories, since the kinds of lives they portray are themselves likely to be rather short on "plot" and psychologically afflicted in generally similar ways. But whether form most often influences content or content determines form, the result in this collection is a kind of fiction in which the form of expression doesn't merely point us to its subject but is dynamically a part of it in a way that I, for one, find impressive:
The cigarette should burrow through him. It should take his skin to butter and give me a rabbit hole on his skinny, hairless arm. Then I could pull up his shirt sleeve any time I wanted and admire it, that charred empty well. It would always belong to me.
When I try to bring the coal down in the middle of a lazy map of freckles, he flinches again, laughing. His naked torso folds in on itself, as if he's blocking some probing, tickling hand, and he keeps giggling, high and sloppy and loud. He goes down to the floor, drink still buoyed up in the air by an extended right hand. ("Fine Creatures")
I wouldn't say that The Suburban Swindle is a flawless book--sometimes the familiarity of the material does subsume the liveliness of the writing--but it introduces a writer whose approach both to her subject and to the literary presentation it requires certainly makes me curious about what her future work might be like.