THE LAST ONE (2016)
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We all know that “reality” TV shows bear as much resemblance to truth as does the Tooth Fairy to scientific dentistry. They are the ultimate junk TV--Dumb and Dumber brought to the small screen. But what would happen if actual reality collided with reality TV? That’s the setup for Alexandra Oliva’s debut novel The Last One, which releases this summer in time for deck chair reading.
Oliva is the latest to enter the post-apocalypse genre, hence her book invites comparisons to recent offerings such as The Road, Station Eleven, The Dog Stars, and The Hunger Games. The hook is that twelve people have been recruited for “In the Dark,” the Mother of All Reality Shows, one with a big budget and a million dollar prize for the titular last one standing. Call it “Survivor” on steroids. Contestants are warned that they will be put through grueling challenges that will be physically and emotionally demanding and, at times, dangerous. They can quit at any time by uttering the phrase ad tenebras dedi, Latin for “I surrender to the dark,” but will not know until the end who wins. They are also told there will be clues and opportunities along the way, which they’ll recognize by assigned colors. (Shades of The Hunger Games.)
Oliva only gives us hints about the contestants, which are based upon short descriptors of their defining personality traits: Air Force, Banker, Biology, Black Doctor, Carpenter, Cheerleader Boy, Engineer, Exorcist, Rancher, Tracker, Waitress, and Zoo. The story is narrated by the last of these, a young married woman seeking a final big thrill before settling into respectable motherhood. Zoo is also the source of all that we know about the others, including their actual names. After a series of gross group and solo “challenges” which thin the herd, the survivors set out alone.
It gives away nothing to say that they no sooner strike out on their own than a mysterious pneumonic plague-like disease wipes out most the population. Given all that Zoo has already been through, she assumes putrefying bodies are brilliant f/x props and that each horror or obstacle she encounters is an elaborate illusion to test her resolve—right down to a mewling “doll” lying beside a lifelike corpse. Hence, when Zoo meets up with Brennan, a traumatized 13-year-old who becomes her traveling partner, she assumes he’s also a producer’s plant, refuses to believe his tales, and continues to play by the rules. She does, however, accept that she could be seriously harmed on her journey and becomes a warrior/thief/survivor.
Zoo’s journey is a bit of a mash between Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. It’s a harrowing tale, though I could have certainly done without all Zoo’s schmaltzy mommy urges. These annoyed me, as did periodic suggestions that Zoo’s toughness and resourcefulness are mere reflections of her resolve to be safe in her husband’s arms. What, are we afraid to just let Zoo be a feminist instead of begrimed poster gal for family values?
Though Oliva pushed some of my ‘ick’ buttons, this book engaged me. That surprised me, as I loathe “Survivor” and all other reality shows. As apocalyptic novels go, this one is (if I may!) middle of the road and simply doesn’t measure up to any of the books to which it has been compared. It doesn’t have to. It will fit the bill nicely for what it is: breezy escapist fare for summertime reading.