January Fifteenth, Rachel Swirsky (Tordotcom 978-1-25019-894-5, $15.99, 240pp, tp) June 2022.
If you’ve ever read any of Rachel Swirsky’s short fiction, then you’re familiar with her signature elegant prose and her very literary deconstruction of traditional plot. Swirsky’s style is instantly recognizable and widely appreciated, earning her multiple Nebulas, and, at the very least, enthusiastic nods from nearly all the award committees in genre.
Swirsky’s latest novella, January Fifteenth, possesses all the hallmarks of a Swirsky piece – attention to cadence, elevated prose – while offering a quick, accessible read.
It’s a filling meal, but not a heavy one.
January Fifteenth does a deep exploration of the controversial concept of Universal Basic Income (UBI), a program in which citizens under a particular government, or as members of some other geo/social/politically defined set, receive regular, equal grant payments, and that these grant payments are not affected by other factors outside that defined set (such as earned income, age, education level, and so forth). UBI is not a new concept, dating from ancient Rome, and has been run on small scales throughout the world. In the United States, pilot programs have begun to test the hotly-debated concept, and while January Fifteenth poses the question of what a US-wide UBI program could look like, it delves deeper into speculating what an American UBI program would feel like.
January Fifteenth opens on the morning of – you guessed it – January 15, the day that opens the yearly disbursement of UBI funds to the population, and we follow four very different women as they move through that particular January 15.
Hannah is a recently divorced mother of two, living in upstate New York. Hannah and her sons are constantly on the move, hiding from the abusive, volatile Abigail, Hannah’s ex-wife and the boys’ birth mother. The financial freedom afforded by UBI allowed Hannah and her children to escape domestic violence, but they are not yet free.
Janelle is a former UBI activist who ekes out a meager living above UBI as a blacklisted journalist in Chicago. Janelle is guardian to her younger sister, Nevaeh, an intelligent, spirited teenager. While things are, technically, fine for both sisters, they are also both struggling to find their place in the world: Janelle as an increasingly-jaded, lonely woman entering middle age, and Nevaeh is someone who appreciates the security of UBI but wants to make a difference in all the still-ongoing inequities and injustices in the world.
Olivia is failing out of Brown University, and trying desperately not to think too much about her future, as she joins her high school friends on a break between semesters to celebrate “Waste Day.” To Olivia and her wealthy peers, UBI is a joke. They don’t need the money, and so they gather yearly to drink, party, and, literally, blow any UBI they have left over after buying designer phone “wristers.” Waste Day is exactly that: a day to waste what they haven’t earned, don’t need, and have no respect for. But when one of Olivia’s group does something more extreme than expected, Olivia is forced to face her reality, that she has to find out who she is and who she wants to be.
The last point-of-view character is Sarah, a very pregnant 15 year old and newest sister-wife in a polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) family. Sarah is struggling. She’s fighting late-onset morning sickness, as she walks, along with all the other women in her FLDS community, to pick up their UBI disbursements. Additionally, Sarah is unhappy in her marriage-unit, alienated by the older sister-wives, and she has no emotional support as she tries to make sense of her family’s shunning of her young brother, Toby. Just before UBI disbursement day, Sarah witnessed her father and other brothers assault the young Toby, whom they then abandoned by the side of the road. Sarah is joined on the walk by her extremely intelligent cousin, Agnes, who also struggles to fit into the FLDS community. For both Sarah and Agnes, who realize at the UBI distribution office that the other women are fraudulently claiming checks for other sons – like Toby – who have been cut out of the community, the financial security of UBI becomes their way out.
January Fifteenth is a fascinating thought experiment. For two of the characters, the guaranteed income provides them the opportunity to escape conditions in which they are vulnerable. The other two characters, though they come from wildly different backgrounds, contend with how one lives a meaningful life when your basic needs are covered. Swirsky chooses not to show all the possibilities that UBI may have, but instead to linger within these two emotionally-resonant themes.
As the book – and the day – ends, neither the characters nor us readers are left with definite answers. Those kinds of answers, it’s suggested, are the ones found on January 16th – and all the days thereafter.
Caren Gussoff Sumption is a writer, editor, Tarot reader, and reseller living outside Seattle, WA with her husband, the artist and data scientist, Chris Sumption, and their ridiculously spoiled cat-children.
Born in New York, she attended the University of Colorado, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Clarion West (as the Carl Brandon Society’s Octavia Butler scholar) and the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop. Caren is also a Hedgebrook alum (2010, 2016). She started writing fiction and teaching professionally in 2000, with the publication of her first novel, Homecoming.
Caren is a big, fat feminist killjoy of Jewish and Romany heritages. She loves serial commas, quadruple espressos, knitting, the new golden age of television, and over-analyzing things. Her turn offs include ear infections, black mold, and raisins in oatmeal cookies.
This review and more like it in the June 2022 issue of Locus.
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