On the first page of Disappearance Diary, Hideo Azuma's Manga-memoir detailing the author/artist's off-and-on homelessness and steady alcoholism, the pudgy bug-eyed cartoon version of Azuma tells/warns readers: "This manga has a positive outlook on life and so it has been made with as much realism removed as possible." When the book sorta wraps-up about two hundred pages later, Azuma's a bit more wizened (but only a bit) and still in rehab but seemingly on the right path.
That's to say, Azuma's book is very much written while still in transition, not when he's climbed out of the void, fully shaken of his demons. He's half-way out, on the precipice between sobriety and well, the ugly stuff Azuma kinda sorta glosses over for the entire book--the first flashback is Azuma's failed suicide...played for laughs. Another way to put that however, would be: Though played for laughs, the book's first flashback is still to his attempted suicide. It's this weird tension between what Azuma's book could and should be and what it is that makes it such a frustrating and fascinating read.
I happened to pick this book up at Chapel Hill Comics a few days before Noah Berlatsky's TCJ review, reprinted on The Hooded Utilitarian, went up. In a sense, it's reprinting was ideal. Here was one of the few comics writers whose byline I take notice of or search for (if I finish a book, I might Google dude's name in combination with the book I just completed in hopes of finding a review), who isn't afraid to call bullshit or rigorously defend something with the same fervor, writing about a book I enjoyed and devoured but left feeling really weird about.
A week after reading the Manga and Berlatsky's review, I pretty much disagree with Berlatsky on every point but without Berlatsky's merciless review, I don't think I could've argued with myself into declaring Azuma's anti-confessional memoir a masterpiece. This ladies and gentlemen, is what good criticism does: It clarifies, complicates, and gives you confidence in your own views of a book.
Back to that contentious page-one declaration that "this manga has a positive outlook on life and so it has been made with as much realism removed as possible." Berlatsky's right when points out Azuma grossly misunderstands what "realism" means, but the constant turn away not from ugly, raw details, but the really dark stuff--he'll tell you how he found cigarettes and a lighter in his out of the trash noodles, he won't tell you how upset his disappearance made his wife--is a provocation, one Azuma introduces from the the first page of Disappearance Diary.
It's a provocation because Azuma occasionally reminds you of his wife and simply by doing that, reminds the reader of how he amputates her from his downward spiral narrative, mentioning her in passing (including the tiny little fact that she works on his Manga with him!). At other points, he steps into the narrative and rushes through a part of his life that would be really interesting by telling you that he's gonna move on because this part "isn't funny". That part might also allow Azuma to confess to being a fuck-up, which paradoxically, would make the book more indulgent.
By the end of the book, Azuma's not vomiting, homeless, and entirely a mess, but he's still got work to do. It's why he remains in rehab when Disappearance Diary ends and it's why so much of the pain he caused is sliced right out the book. Azuma wasn't drawing the book in rehab, it's simply the position he's taken, and so the book holds onto some of the worst aspects of his addictive behavior (denial, refusal to take it seriously, a disinterest in even actualizing the people he's hurt), but with an odd knowingness about it too, as if he's writing in those absences (they're not unconscious omissions) to develop some extra contempt for the Azuma character and recreate the anger and mouth agape frustration his wife and employers and kids most certainly felt.
And when it isn't stirring up these feelings, it's wrapping itself in of-the-moment minutiae: The day to day patterns employed to pick up some food and procure drink while homeless, the technical details of being a gas pipe layer, and the insane business practices of the Manga industry. The focus on these little details further encourages the feeling of frustration with Azuma, while it also captures the temporal, of-the-moment-ness of his life during this chaotic, fuck-it-all time. Monique compared the book's narrative, especially the early part of the book where he describes the normal day being homeless, to a video game and that's apt--the same mix of of-the-moment whimsy and mind-numbing repetition.
Even the third-act shift to a rehab center keeps-up this kind of denial by diving into the details that, if you don't find Azuma's insights into the personalities and weird tics of those around him--a kind of annoyed empathy that is really kind of specific to this book--can get mad tedious. This tedium speaks to Berlatsky's point that Azuma misunderstands what defines "realism" but again, it also gives the book a really strange power that creeps up on you after you've finished reading it. The book's essentially a mess of tiny details equal parts funny and horrifying that slow-up to an ending when Azuma sorta gets his shit together in rehab.
There's no resolution to Disappearance Diary, no restorative wrap-up, no "Man, I really messed-up by I'm trying" stuff that tempers even the darkest of addiction, depression memoirs. That's to say, the book through Azuma's choice (whether it's a blind-spot Azuma also has in life doesn't matter, once he turns it into art, it becomes a choice) to omit crucial details, to gingerly dance around the stuff that's really makes him look bad (which makes him look really bad to readers), captures something rarely touched-upon in "How I was a fuck-up"-style memoirs: Not quite recovered, not quite a blithering, full-blown, mess either--the awkward in-betweens of rehabilitation,