The Last One by Alexandra Oliva | Publisher: Ballantine Books
Our culture has been obsessed with reality television ever since MTV’s (still-running) 1992 hit show The Real World examined how strangers from different walks of life would react to living together as cameras followed them around 24/7. With the introduction of Survivor, Big Brother, and The Amazing Race, reality television became even more tantalizing as we watched real people compete and react under extreme pressure. The latter of the genre is the focus of Alexandra Oliva’s stunning debut novel, The Last One.
A group of twelve contestants compete against each other for one million dollars in a wilderness survival reality show, much like CBS’ Survivor. Less than a week into filming, the world is hit with a deadly flu-like virus and few are immune. The Last One alternates between flashbacks to the early days of filming and the present day with Zoo, a contestant nicknamed as such by the producers, as she navigates through the wild, unaware that the world around her has changed.
As the cameramen and host disappear, Zoo becomes convinced it is all a part of the game, and she refuses to quit. Overwhelmed by hunger and dehydration, Zoo begins to see everything through the lens of reality television. The few dead bodies she encounters are props, the wild coyote that attacks her must be animatronic, and everything is a clue she must follow to make her way home.
These chapters present a fascinating look at how television alters our perceptions, especially since a major debate among reality TV fans is how far networks will go to “keep it real.” Even in the face of how unlikely it is that the network would clear out an entire town to sell an end-of-the-world catastrophe, Zoo talks herself into believing it has done exactly that.
Oliva’s research is highly impressive. While she clearly supplied Zoo and other contestants with ample knowledge of tracking, rock climbing, building a fire, skinning animals, and overall wilderness survival, it’s the behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to produce a reality television show that really stands out. Subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) edits are made to portray the contestants as the producers need them to be, not who they truly are. People are cast not for their ability to compete, but for their ability to be combative, sexy, or infuriating. There’s even a few glimpses into the online culture that is created around social media viewing of such shows. Message boards are filled with the typical enthusiasts, naysayers, and, of course, trolls.
At times, it did become frustrating waiting for Zoo to get it, but her desire to still believe the game is on is understandable: She needs to feel like everything she’d been through and leaving her husband was worth it. The pacing in the flashback chapters was a bit slow at times, but once it heats up in present day, The Last One races to the finish. You truly have no idea what’s waiting for Zoo, or you, once she gets there.
The Last One = 9.6/10