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Simple Sketches Of A Complicated Cure In 'The Hospital Suite'

"A plague of tics": That's how writer David Sedaris described his experience of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but for others the enigmatic illness is more like a storm of thoughts. "Did I lock my [storage] locker?" broods John Porcellino in The Hospital Suite. "Did I turn the living room lights off? What if the force of removing my hand from the [refrigerator] door caused it to open a little?"

These perturbations provide a grim rhythm for Porcellino's health problems in The Hospital Suite, which is less an account of hospitalization than a saga of medical bewilderment. Rather than a (comparatively) straightforward experience of illness — the kind that ends with a cure — Porcellino endured years of second-guessing. It's as if his healers just couldn't figure out how to keep that refrigerator door closed.

The Hospital Suite begins in 1995 with Porcellino, the creator of the iconic zine King-Cat Comics, already suffering from a mysterious ailment above and beyond OCD. He has developed hyperacusis, a disorder in which ordinary sounds cause intense pain and pressure in the ears. He has been to multiple doctors, an acupuncturist and a naturopath with mixed results: Although his ears have improved, he's plagued by persistent fatigue. "The acupuncturist told me I need more protein in my diet," he muses helplessly, sitting on a park bench. "Maybe I should try eating some eggs."

Soon, though, his ears become the least of his worries. Intense abdominal pains send him to the hospital, where he lies in pain for days while doctors struggle to figure out what's wrong. It turns out to be a routine problem, but the surgery seems to set off a series of unrelated issues: He loses weight drastically, becomes acutely sensitive to smell and develops a raft of food allergies. His ear problems are as bad as ever. Again and again the promise of healing fails him. "Could it be that the downward spiral had ended?" he asks after a successful visit to an allergy clinic. But no — now his OCD, which he has struggled with off and on since college, returns in force.

As in King-Cat, Porcellino illustrates his ups and downs in a style that's the very definition of deceptive simplicity — just a few lines in each panel. There are no backdrops and only rudimentary use of perspective. People have dots for eyes and curves or zigzags for noses; hands are puffy mitts. Cars look especially childish, like blobby little marshmallows.

But this style becomes a startlingly powerful way to engage with the topic of illness. Getting sick and seeking a cure is a process that's both humbling and extraordinary. A Porcellino panel expresses that back-and-forth perfectly. With childlike lines and rigorous simplicity, his vision is simultaneously diffident and universal. The careful thought and slow development behind each handful of lines is beautifully visible in the appendix. It contains the "True Anxiety" series, three strips dealing with OCD that Porcellino wrote way back in 1992. Here, images that would later be boiled down to three lines take five or six — a vast difference.

"One of the worst things about OCD is that you're only partially crazy," Porcellino writes. "At the same time one half of your brain is making you do all this nutty stuff ... the other half is telling you how ridiculous you are for doing it." The same could be said for the unorthodox natural-healing practices that Porcellino resorts to — or, for that matter, for the esoteric techniques of modern medicine. Eventually it's a combination of both that provides him some relief.

Or, rather, a combination of three, or four — for Porcellino's conscious mind is an important player too. Apparently a devoted Buddhist, he frequently shares insights or mentions books he found particularly helpful. He also does yoga and gets psychotherapy.

Ultimately, though, his "cure" isn't clear-cut. "I'm still nuts. I'm still weird. I still have good days and bad days," he writes. Still, his improvement is real. "When I meet you," he suggests at the very end, "let's shake hands."

Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.