Confession: While I concede that John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces” is remarkable, it’s never made me laugh. Neither has Kingsley Amis’ “Lucky Jim,” nor any other of the many novels that are most lauded for being hilarious. Sure, these works are witty and droll, but rarely do they elicit actual chuckles as they give insights into the human condition. Which is why Maria Semple is such a treasure. With the publication of “Today Will Be Different,” she has now written two works of fiction (her previous novel, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” was published in 2012) that are truly smart and deep and funny — worthy of laughing out loud rather than merely saying “LOL.” Semple brilliantly conveys a whole array of angst — self-deprecation and existential dread and a panic attack of neuroses — while simultaneously packing in a liberal dose of levity.
“Today Will Be Different” has a simple premise: Eleanor Flood, a wealthy, middle-aged Seattle resident with a penchant for negativity, decides to be better. She sets seemingly reasonable, attainable goals that actually hint at her need for a total life overhaul and personality change: to be a better wife and mother and friend and human being. Told in the span of one day, with a few well-placed flashbacks, “Today Will Be Different” reminds us that self-improvement is gradual and way more difficult than we’d like for it to be, even under the best of circumstances.
This being a Maria Semple novel, Eleanor finds herself burdened by many unforeseen obstacles, including a missing husband, a mystery lunch date who brings up painful memories from Eleanor’s past, and an out-of-school “sick” son named Timby who accompanies her on her day’s journeys. As Eleanor explains, “Lying in bed this morning, I had set the bar laughably low: look people in the eye, get dressed, smile!...Then that prankster Reality appeared in a pickup truck ahead of me and started tossing watermelons out of the back.”
Misadventures ensue as a frenzied Eleanor goes in search of her husband, bringing Timby along for the ride. She amasses a variety of emotional injuries throughout the day, along with some physical ones. She makes a spectacle of herself at the opening of an art exhibit. She learns that her publishing deal for an unfinished graphic novel she’s been working on for years may be null because both her editor (“At a cheese shop in Nyack)” and her agent (“Someone said she’s a homeopath in Colorado”) have fled the industry (“Publishing… going through a rough patch”). She has a near nervous breakdown at Timby’s school. Before all of the craziness begins, she spends a short time analyzing the Robert Lowell poem “Skunk Hour” with her poetry tutor, Alonzo, in a rare moment that feels intellectually satisfying and insightful for Eleanor. Later in the novel, she encounters Alonzo handing out samples of “breaded steak fish” at the local Costco.
Before she started writing books, Semple was a consulting producer on the third season of “Arrested Development,” and it just so happens that Eleanor Flood also has experience with deadpan comedy. In the ’90s, Eleanor was the animation director of a television show called “Looper Wash,” giving the cartoon a “retro-violent and sherbet colored aesthetic” that, along with the nasty attitudes of its four preteen heroines, made the show a cult classic. In Eleanor’s description, the girls “misdirected their unconscious fear of puberty into a random hatred of hippies, owners of purebred dogs, and babies named Steve.” “When you get older,” Eleanor says to Timby, explaining the ongoing appeal of “Looper Wash’s” snarky worldview, “mean is funny.”
“Today Will Be Different” proves Eleanor right, of course. Her random digs and petty insults are odious and wonderful. Here’s Eleanor on her brother-in-law: “He wasn’t fat, exactly. He reminded Eleanor of how papayas swelled during the rainy season, or the way Greg Gumbel looked like someone had taken a bicycle pump to Bryant Gumbel.”
In tone, both “Looper Wash” and Eleanor herself recall the TV character Daria, that flawed MTV cartoon goddess who never lacked for a sarcastic zinger. But even as Daria and Eleanor take comfort in the knowledge that they’re better than most everyone, they also suffer from and are isolated by their superiority complex. If many of Eleanor’s problems stem from the Daria-sized chip on her shoulder, then the most compelling part of “Today Will Be Different” is watching Eleanor decide how and when to let down her guard. (Note that Semple wrote on the Color Me Badd guest-starring episode of ’90s night-time soap “Beverly Hills, 90210,” in which the show’s stars fervently swoon over the boy band that wrote “I Wanna Sex You Up.” Despite her trademark edge, Semple is capable of writing maudlin earnestness when the occasion calls for it.)
Eleanor Flood is a woman with a preemptive mental inventory she calls The Gratitude List, a catalog of all of her husband’s traits that annoy her just in case he ever decides to leave her (Item No. 5: “He puts sriracha on everything I make. Even waffles.”) If humor is the ultimate defense mechanism, how can Eleanor re-train herself to believe that her world isn’t always on the verge of collapse? Some yoga and smiling and a good mantra (see the book’s title) are nice starts but not quite enough to change a world view. Still, it’s a joy to watch Eleanor struggle to change for the better. That we get to laugh along with her is an added bonus.
Kreizman is the author of the book “Slaughterhouse 90210: Where Great Books Meet Pop Culture,” based on her popular blog.
Little, Brown and Co.: 272 pp., $27