365 Days: A Diary by Julie Doucet
(Drawn & Quarterly)
Diaries, as I understand them, generally seem to serve one of two purposes. On the one hand, there is the urge to record and preserve day-to-day life, perhaps for memory or legacy’s sake, or perhaps to reaffirm the veracity of one’s earthly existence. On the other hand, there is the desire to use the diary as a private literary space, to reflect and psychoanalyze, to spell out the most intimate thoughts and desires. Julie Doucet’s 365 Days: A Diary, which records a year in the life of the Montreal-based graphic artist, from 2002 to 2003, seems to leave very little room for either.
Paradoxically, the primary problem of this work is exactly what has always made Doucet’s art so interesting: her ability to pack an enormous amount of material into the most compact of spaces. Within these claustrophobic, impossibly cluttered 360-odd pages, Doucet jams a vast array of drawings, semi-legible scribblings, collages, and comics. But what is left seems largely to be a clash between the struggling tendencies toward reflection, documentation, and insight, with very little left of any.
Doucet’s drawings are eclectic and skillful, a mixture of cleverly self-deprecating autobiographical depictions and surreal, fantastical additions. Cute, fun, and at times admirably honest, Doucet’s self-portraits are never overly flattering. In fact, she oftentimes portrays herself with grotesque giant hands and a swollen, crooked nose. When her drawings are blissful, it is within the realm of a cluttered, honest environment, rather than a dreamy, idealized fantasy. Doucet’s art peacefully inhabits the space between ugly neue sachlichkeit-style realism and cartoonish idealism. She balances her contrasting tendencies toward whimsy on the one hand, and brutal honesty on the other. She is self-deprecating but never overly critical or disparaging. All of these artistic strains are frequently and skillfully executed in a sprawling, jumbled mass.
And yet 365 Days goes too far, filled with pages that are dense and impenetrable amalgamations of text, cut-outs, and drawings. Doucet’s handwriting is often indecipherable, or at least requires an all too laborious effort to comprehend. And the difficulty in deciphering and disentangling Doucet’s layouts rarely seems worth their content. Her writing flickers between bland grocery-list accounts of the day’s events and the occasional complaints as to the state of her work or relationships. Neither field is given enough energy or depth to be of particular interest, and neither her art nor her writing in the book feel particularly inspired.
Perhaps it is on account of Doucet’s apparently limited mastery of the English language that she is unable to provide the reader with any serious insight or revelation. A French-Canadian, her sometimes broken English is charming at first, but eventually becomes frustrating. The book is filled with slight irregularities, such as: “I don’t know why I agreed doing this” and “I think I just let it drop and that will be it.” At some points, her writing simply doesn’t make sense: “We wanted to know if we are a sex-symbol or a sex-hard luck. Ooh my head, 20 Ans, such a dumb magazine, it’s beautiful.” And sometimes her language is simply vague and evasive: “We ordered more wine, too much wine. Walked back home, feeling nothing.”
Doucet fills most of the journal with accounts of her work at printing or creating linocuts (most entries are along the lines of: “I spent the whole day and evening at the studio with J. and D.”). The only time Doucet goes into serious depth is to complain, largely about business details: how much she’s spent on supplies or shopping, or to which grants she’s applying. Doucet’s life is certainly enviable—her diary records a mixture of inspiring artistic production, quaint shopping and pruning, and exotic travel. At times, however, she seems annoyingly privileged and entitled. Doucet constantly complains about her finances, and yet her life as presented in the journal seems to consist largely of making art, going to museum exhibits, eating at cute restaurants with her friends, and planning trips to France and Germany. It’s frequently difficult to experience pity or empathy for a life so charmed and exceptional.
Yet the plainness and homogeneity of Doucet’s recounting often brings out the worst in all her diary tendencies: not only does she neglect to portray very many events, but even the ones she does mention are bereft of much insight or perspective. Perhaps the problem resides in the very concept of the journal itself. After all, 365 Days isn’t Doucet’s actual diary, but rather a project she took on for a year, knowing full well it would eventually be published. As such, the book never ceases to feel like the project that it is: A contractual obligation, devoid of very much genuine emotion, insight, or intimacy. Doucet is clearly a gifted graphic novelist, and a multitalented artist—after all, it takes more than an average illustrator to balance a journal with text, comics, drawings, and collage. But 365 Days is a cluttered compilation of all these various venues without a commitment to the kind of serious reflection or juicy detail necessary to make it a compelling read.