Paul McDermott, Fragments of the hole (Review)

"Paul McDermott DAAS" by Canley - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.
“Paul McDermott DAAS” by Canley. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

If you’re an Australian, you are sure to know who Paul McDermott is. If you are not Australian, you may not, and this book in fact would not enlighten you, because nowhere on the book is it made clear that “this” Paul McDermott is indeed “that” Paul McDermott. It doesn’t take much reading though to realise that indeed it must be. Have I intrigued you? I hope so.

Fragments of the hole is the first of the second set of fl smalls released by small independent publisher Finlay Lloyd. I mentioned them in my recent post on small books, and said then that I’d review them individually as I read them, so here I am.

I’ll start, having already mentioned him, by telling you about the author. Wikipedia describes him as “an Australian comedian, actor, writer, director, singer, artist and television host”. I knew about most of those, but I didn’t realise that his writing included more than writing scripts for his shows, or that he was an artist too. He first came to public notice as a member of the satirical musical comedy group the Doug Anthony All Stars. The Doug Anthony in their name refers to the longtime leader (1971-1984) of the National Party of Australia, which will, perhaps, give you a sense of his political leanings. However, Fragments of the hole is not political satire, so let’s get onto it …


The jokes start pretty much on the title page when we are told that the book comprises:

a collection of previously unpublished work from various writer/artists:

Young Master Paul, The Nymbus Art Collective, The Marvellous Mr Me, The Generator, Paul McDermott, Ol’ Miss Daisy & The Caravan King.

Hmm … the way I read it they were all written and illustrated by Paul McDermott but, you know, I could be wrong! Whoever wrote them, though, they are delightful – dark, whimsical, and a little cryptic. The collection comprises one prose story, followed by five in verse form, and most read a little like fairy stories or fables. There’s usually a little point to ponder at the end, even if that point raises another question.

Take, for example, the first poem, “The Bread Girl and the Sparrow”. It is reminiscent of “The Gingerbread Man” which, Wikipedia tells me, is just one of many folktales about “runaway food”. Who’d have thought?  Anyhow, in McDermott’s story, in addition to the issue of trust, there are layers of sacrifice and loyalty between food and predator which adds quite an interesting philosophical twist.

There’s a Roald Dahl-esque edge to the stories. The humour is dark. These are not for (most) children. “Asleep/Awake”, for example, is about the sleeping (real) self meeting the dream self. The exhortation at the end, if you are suggestible, could very well bring on a nasty case of insomnia. You have been warned. I loved too “The man who thought (he was a fog)”, and McDermott’s suggestion that perhaps the initial assumption was not the right one at all. “You look for answers where you may/You find them when you can” he says, but, are you asking the right question?

If any single idea underlies the stories it is something about “self” – what is your “self”, do you protect it, how does it interact with others? Sacrifice – sometimes chosen, sometimes inadvertent – appears in a couple of the stories; the idea of alternative selves appears in others. There is also a sense of life not going to plan. It may not always be –

That evil and sorrow await the naive
At every twist and turn

– but it doesn’t hurt to always have your wits about you.

The poems are told in a fairly simple a-b-c-b rhyming pattern, but the line lengths vary at times to change the pace. McDermott, a comedian who lives by his words, is sure in his language, which is clear and unforced. The pencil drawings are delightful. You can feel the twinkle in his eye – the fun he is having – as you read the stories and look at the pictures. They made me chuckle.

And here I will end because this is a book that is best experienced rather than described or analysed. It’s a cheekily clever but also delightfully charming “little book”. It would, dare I say it, make a perfect stocking stuffer for the discerning reader on your gift list.

Paul McDermott
Fragments of the hole: an illustrated collection (or, Odds and ends, bibs and bobs, and little bits of nothing)
(fl smalls 6)
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd, 2015
ISBN: 9780987592958

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd)