Book Review – ‘Martha’ by Walker Zupp
Rhian Hutchings reviews ‘Martha’, the debut novel of Exeter-alumni, Walker Zupp.
In a year that has contended with Australian infernos and a riotous pandemic which continues to shift global politics, Walker Zupp’s egregious depiction of 2086 is perhaps not as dystopic as it would have seemed just last year. Zupp’s raw, if not brutally dark, writing explores mortality and corruption from his “emotionally ugly” characters, to murders targeting the LGBTQ+ community. With immensely detailed descriptions, the reading of Zupp’s debut novel is almost as hallucinatory as his content. Written in an age where we strive to be progressive, Zupp’s fictitious portrayal of a society in sixty years depicts regression on an overwhelming scale.
This momentous forage into the “overbearing” force that is death, coupled with a little absurdity for good measure, encapsulates this rather eccentric novel.
The novel follows a multitude of circumstances from an independent Scotland, to Belgium on the brink of a civil war. Key characters include Harmon Chikenyyt, a newly qualified constable, who finds himself tackling the world of drugs and corruption. Zupp’s extensive descriptions and graphic narration reveal how Harmon and his fellow constables use the hallucinogenic drug D.E.R.P as one of their more questionable methods of policing. Detailing the chemicals and drugs used in their full scientific form, the experimental description, in contrast to the scientific, is certainly fantastical as it follows the characters through their drugged experiences. Zupp uses his satiric wit to allude to a future even more inundated with corruption than that of todays.
His exploration of mortality and drugs continues with the ‘Boundaries’ clinic. Death bears a transactional nature in the clinic, where the indifference of the those who work at the clinic resembles that of the “radical capitalist nation-states” who endorse them. The characters who find themselves at the clinic are as absurd as they are exaggerated. Their dark comedic value contributes to the skewed philosophical ideas about death discussed in their talks as the patients make the very final decision as to whether they wish to end their lives. An example being the ridiculousness of the character Ben Calm and his predicament, his genitalia reaching 42 inches, and how this issue is discussed alongside the abstract nature of death itself. This momentous forage into the “overbearing” force that is death, coupled with a little absurdity for good measure, encapsulates this rather eccentric novel.
The LGBTQ+ community features heavily in the novel as they face extreme violence and prejudice, drawing parallels with their treatment in current society. Even though in this dystopian parliament, where the “winning votes in 2091 will be from the LGBTQ+ community”, there remains a considerable threat towards the community as armed protestors outside a same sex marriage storm the building. Transphobia and stigma related to gender reassignment surgery permeates throughout the story with a sardonically comedic sub-plot. Zupp transports us to a world where, sixty years on, this stigma is still “screaming and growing and kicking.”
Transphobia and stigma related to gender reassignment surgery permeates throughout the story with a sardonically comedic sub-plot.
The experimental if not absurd nature of the novel culminates as the Prime Minister undergoes gender reassignment surgery seemingly to gain political ascendance. The Prime Minister renames himself ‘Mister Limousine’ and his life comes to an unceremonious end following a mass shooting at an LGBTQ+ rally. Amongst the death and ever-present violence in the novel, Zupp manages to pepper political and cultural jibes, for example referring to the “raving liberals” as the “irritating low IQ cousin” of the LGBTQ+ community. The albeit dark humour of the novel cushions the blow as the reader imagines the disturbed future of the 2080s.
Zupp’s specialisation in speculative fiction is certainly evident, as this dynamic and spirited novel not only provides a desolate and violent future but manages to induce some sharp and satirical humour, a strangely compelling combination. Zupp exposes hypocrisies, as encapsulated by the Chief Constable in the novel, that “all we can do is ensure that there can be no bigger hypocrite than us”. Walker Zupp’s eccentric imagination transports the reader to a world where drugs are prevalent, life and death are virtually interchangeable and chemicals practically overrule human emotion- and yet still manages a humorous undertone, exemplifying our distinctive human quality of lightening even the darkest of surroundings.