Is there such a thing as an early life crisis? The mid-life crisis, with its restless hookups and material status symbols, is well-trod territory, but it’s the effect of sitting stunned in the car wreckage of a life, wondering just what happened that led to this moment. Is there a point in life just before the crash, when you can see the oncoming car or mailbox, and it’s not yet too late to swerve out of the way–but it will be if you don’t take control right now?
Both Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Seconds and Jess Fink’s We Can Fix It! occupy themselves with that moment. Both were written in their respective author’s early thirties, and concern protagonists of roughly the same age. It’s the age (which I share, being 33 years old as I write this) where you no longer quite feel that anything is possible, but the remaining field of potential isn’t yet suffocating. A co-editor of mine, also about my age, quit recently, and I can understand why; seeing the oncoming car, he decided to make a hard swerve.
Both Seconds and We Can Fix It! employ fantastic devices in mostly mundane settings. Seconds has its magic mushrooms, and We Can Fix It! has its time machine, and both function to the same end: to facilitate the protagonist’s desire to alter the past and live their “mistakes” differently. Naturally, this gives rise to problems in both stories, though the different nature of the obstacles is worth examining.
Seconds is a work of fiction which involves Katie, its heroine, finding a cache of magic mushrooms and instructions on how to use them to undo mistakes. The instructions double as rules: the bearer is meant to get only one mulligan, and it has to be something that occurred on the premises where the do-over kit is found. Naturally, Katie ignores one rule first and then the other–and then a third, totally unwritten rule–leading to disaster. Given the chance to rewrite her life, as her ex/boyfriend/husband Max says, she “started trying to make things better, and now […] can’t stop until things are perfect.”
Katie runs into trouble not just because she breaks the rules, but because the perfection she reaches for using the mushrooms is unattainable. The more mistakes in her relationship with Max she undoes, the further away her goal of owning her own restaurant seems to slip; her two dreams are revealed to be rooted in mutually exclusive choices. Katie has the power, at least for a while, to change whatever she wants, but no retroactive change can truly grant her desire. It isn’t until all her meddling is itself undone that she’s able to move forward in the life she built and forge it into what she wants it to be from there.
Unlike Seconds, We Can Fix It! is a loose autobiography; the time machine angle is more of a framing devices for the vignettes Fink presents of her past. The major stumbling block for Fink isn’t that she changes too much, but that she’s frustrated by her inability to change anything at all. Every time she zaps back to the past, her younger selves are either too confused or too headstrong to listen to any of her supposedly sage advice.
Although what Fink learns is that she can’t change the past, rather than Katie’s lesson that she shouldn’t, they both arrive at roughly the same place: an appreciation of their personal history. After some commiseration with her future self on where her plans went wrong, the last third of Fink’s “time travel memoir” has her revisiting the good times in her early life to prove to herself it’s not all as bad as she remembered. And either way, she finishes the story by returning to her caring spouse and fulfilling career, proving that even a rocky start doesn’t necessarily lead to a tragic end.
Not that Fink’s story is over, or Katie’s either. The terrible fear as we start to feel ourselves settling into a role, seeing the rest of our lives yawning ahead, that it’s all about to go wrong makes us anxious to look to the past to see how it might have been avoided, or how it might still be. In the grip of that fear, we forget that the specter of the coming crisis might only be that and nothing more. If we can find the courage to pay it no heed and keep driving, there’s an even chance things will work themselves out on their own.