Book Review: The Last One, Alexandra Oliva (2016)

July 11th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

The Apocalypse Will Be Televised

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape.)

Even the best among us can break, thinks the editor. That’s the whole idea behind the show, after all—to break the contestants. Though the twelve who entered the ring were told that it’s about survival. That it’s a race. All true, but. Even the title they were told was a deception. Subject to change, as the fine print read. The title in its textbox does not read The Woods, but In the Dark.

I pick it up, thinking it might be a Clue. I unfold the paper and read:

INDIVIDUALS EXPERIENCING SYMPTOMS—LETHARGY, SORE THROAT, NAUSEA, VOMITING, LIGHTHEADEDNESS, COUGHING—REPORT IMMEDIATELY TO THE OLD MILL COMMUNITY CENTER FOR MANDATORY QUARANTINE.

I stare at it for a moment, uncomprehending. And then, like dominoes falling, I understand. I understand everything. Taking my cameraman away, the cabin, the careful clearing of all human life from my path—they’re changing the narrative. I remember Google-mapping the area they told us we’d be filming in before I left home. I remember noticing a patch of green not far away: Worlds End State Park. I remember because I loved the name but cringed at the lack of an apostrophe. But perhaps the name isn’t a title, but a statement. Perhaps the park’s proximity to our starting location wasn’t coincidence. For all I know, it was our starting location.

Those clever assholes.

I remember watching a show with a similar premise on the Discovery Channel, years ago. It was billed as an experiment; people who “survived” a simulated flu outbreak had to build a little community before finding a way to safety. They got to do cool stuff like wire up solar panels and build cars. All I get to do is walk endlessly and listen to a rambling kid tell a bullshit story.

Have you all seen the legal releases that leaked yesterday? 98 pages!

Pushing thirty and married to a wonderful guy, “Zoo” is finally thinking about settling down and starting a family. And the idea terrifies her. So much so that she’d do anything to delay the (seemingly) inevitable: including audition for a survivalist-type reality tv show in which twelve contestants brave the wilderness – and each other – for a shot at winning a million bucks.

A week into filming, Zoo and her now-eight cast mates are out on a Solo Challenge when the plague hits. In all the chaos and confusion, the production team is unable to pull Zoo out (they had contingency plans, but not for this!). Guided by what she thinks is a Clue – a doormat reading “Home Sweet Home” – Zoo treks east, ignoring the corpses and ransacked stores that line her path. It’s all just part of the game – and they will not get a rise out of her a second time.

If the premise seems a little hard to swallow, I can’t argue. However, Oliva coats the plot with clever details that make it go down just a wee bit easier. By the time the shit hits the fan, Zoo’s already shaken and disillusioned with the experience; after all, she and her team just witnessed a lost and injured “hiker” take a nosedive off a cliff. (The special effects were cheesy, but still.) Then there are the Clues, highlighted in Zoo’s color, blue; when you’re primed to see signs, you’ll soon spot them everywhere. Further blurring Zoo’s reality is the loss of her glasses in an animal attack. (As someone who needs corrective lenses, this twist hit me especially hard. Losing my glasses would make me easy pickings, if I wasn’t already.)

Despite Zoo’s uncertainty, the audience knows pretty early on that the apocalypse is real. Instead of detracting from the suspense, this merely shifts it: when will Zoo stop filtering sensory input through the lens of reality television and finally accept what her eyes and ears and nose are telling her? How long will it take Zoo to recognize the so-called props, Clues, and Challenges for what they really are: death, destruction, and actual, honest-to-goodness marauders? And can she come to her senses before it’s too late?

Equal parts apocalyptic tale and an interrogation of reality television, The Last One works well on both levels. As a scifi story, it’s entertaining, compelling, and a little different from anything I’ve read. While it’s true that Zoo spends an inordinate amount of time simply walking, Oliva imbues even this mundane activity with tension and suspense, since you’re not quite sure what Zoo will find; how she’ll explain it; or whether she’ll even spot it without her glasses.

The impending motherhood subplot made me a little nervous; it’s pretty clear, even early on, that Zoo doesn’t want to have a kid and doesn’t know how to tell her husband. Later on, when she finally accepts what’s happened – that her husband is likely dead – she blames herself, as if this is some cosmic punishment for her failed femininity. (Yuck!) Yet the ending (a little happier than you’d expect, but not enough that it ruined things for me) disavows this (rather normal fear), in a way. In another way, not. It’s not the worst resolution of the conflict, anyway.

The reality tv angle is especially clever and well-done. Anyone who’s watched just a handful of such tv shows knows that there’s little “real” about them. From casting to editing, the show is constructed and scripted to reflect a certain (often preordained) version of reality. Participants are cast to fill specific roles (often shaped by stereotypes and reduced to caricatures); camera angles are carefully chosen to show only that which the creators wish the audience to see; footage is edited to reflect a certain narrative. While I was aware of all this on a certain level, The Last One really brought it into stark relief.

By story’s end, Zoo’s willful ignorance seems almost reasonable: When the unreal outweighs the real, which is true?

I especially love the story’s construction: the first week of filming is presented in third-person past-tense, and these chapters alternate with Zoo’s present-day narration of (what she thinks is) her current Solo Challenge. Whereas the television show is, on its face, an unreliable representation of reality, these chapters – which provide a behind-the-scenes look at In the Dark – are actually more trustworthy than Zoo’s perception of events, skewed as they are by her expectations. Yet the anonymous, third person narrator (who comes to represent the show for me) refers to everyone by their nicknames, the part they were cast to play; e.g., “Black Doctor,” “Air Force,” “Tracker,” “Asian/Carpenter Chick,” etc. – whereas Zoo gives them their first names back. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of real and scripted, with different narrators filling in various pieces of the puzzle.

Read it if: you like an edge-of-your-seat psychological thriller or creepy apocalyptic tale; you’re a reality tv junkie.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: The book focuses on Zoo, one of twelve contestants on the reality show In the Dark. Zoo and her (now eight) cast mates are out on a Solo Challenge when the plague hits. Determined to win the race (and increasingly disillusioned with the production crew), Zoo keeps going, assuming that the death and destruction around her is all part of the “game.” The book’s narration alternates between a past-tense look at the first week of filming and Zoo’s present-day, post-apocalyptic experiences. This makes for a rather interesting contrast; for example, you’d expect Zoo’s unfiltered, first-hand narration to be more reliable than the show’s – except that we can’t really trust Zoo’s interpretation of events. Yet Zoo, when remembering her cast mates, treats them as actual human beings, referring to them by their real names – whereas the past-tense chapters refer to them by nicknames, based on the roles they were cast to play (e.g., Black Doctor; Asian Carpenter Chick; Exorcist).

The cast is quite diverse, as you can see. Since it isn’t always easy to match up real names to nicknames, I’ve included both only where possible. The nicknames (and sometimes descriptions, depending on who’s giving them) are deliberately offensive, I think, meant to reduce the participants to one or two defining characteristics.

Zoo/Sam – “A white woman in her late twenties with light hair and glasses, a sky-blue bandana around her wrist.”

Tracker/Connor – “a tall bald man with panther-dark skin”; “He is dressed in black and his skin is dark, the tone of tilled earth. He has spent years cultivating the aura of a great cat, and he now exudes without effort a feline sense of power and grace.” Tracker’s mom has cancer; the crushing medical bills is the reason he tried out for the show.

Biology – Gay and Latina, with a “mocha” complexion and hair that falls in tight spirals. “Biology, who teaches seventh-grade life science in a small public school, is the least threatening style of lesbian: a shapely, feminine one who holds her sexuality close. Her dark, spiraling hair is long, her light brown skin moisturized.”

Asian Chick/Carpenter Chick – “a petite woman of Korean descent”

Black Doctor – “A middle-aged black man”; “Black Doctor is shorter and rounder than Tracker, with a goatee.”

Engineer – “Watching the others is Engineer. He wears his maroon-and-brown-striped bandana around his neck like Rancher’s, but it looks very different on this gangly, bespectacled young Chinese American man.”

Waitress/Heather – Six feet tall, slender, with red hair. “Waitress’s secret, one viewers will not be told, is that she never submitted an application. She was recruited. The men in charge wanted an attractive but essentially useless woman, a redhead if possible, since they already had chosen two brunettes and a blonde…”

Banker – “Banker can be crammed into this stereotype [greedy, privileged Wall Street type], but it doesn’t fit him. He grew up the eldest son of middle-class Jews.”

Air Force – “For their military selection, the producers wanted a classic, and the man they chose is just that: close-cropped blond hair that glitters in the sun, sharp blue eyes, a strong chin perpetually thrust forth.”

Rancher – “Rancher’s ancestors were once categorized as mestizo and largely dismissed by the powers-that-be. […] His grandfather crossed the border in the night and found work shoveling manure and milking cows at a family-owned ranch. Years later, he married the boss’s daughter, who inherited the business. Their light-skinned son married a dark-skinned seamstress from Mexico City. Rancher’s skin is the lightly toasted hue that resulted from that union. He is fifty-seven, and his shaggy chin-length hair is as sharply black-and-white as his beliefs about good and evil.”

Exorcist/Randy – “The red-haired man wins, and he hunches over to catch his breath. He’s dressed in plain outdoor clothing with his lime-green bandana tied above his elbow like a tourniquet. But he’s wearing Goth-style boots, and a heavy gold cross dangles on a chain next to his compass.” Randy has a violent temper; his wife left him after he hit her.

Cheerleader Boy – A young white gay male. “The creators of the show all agree that the hostile tone with which Cheerleader Boy spoke to the most upbeat of the contestants is the perfect introduction to the character they’ve assigned him: the effeminate male so far out of his element he’s more caricature than man.”; “Why did Cheerleader Boy explode like that, out of nowhere? What a huffy, irrational, hateful atheist. The spin declares that this—not his sexuality—is his fatal flaw. A politician can’t win the American presidency without declaring himself a God-fearing man, and a vocal nonbeliever can’t be put forth as a viable contender on a program striving for widespread popularity among the citizens of one nation under God.”

While traveling east, Zoo meets Brennan, a fellow survivor who lost his whole family. Brennan is a thirteen-year-old black boy who suffers from night terrors. His is a fairly significant supporting role.

Oliva includes racially diverse characters elsewhere, as a matter of course; for example, among the MA survivors are an Arab man and an Indian woman. Also, there’s the show’s editor, who “is as light-skinned as the producer but would darken in the sun. His ancestry is complicated. Growing up, he never knew which ethnicity box to check; in the last census he selected white.”

Animal-friendly elements: Not really. Given that this is a wilderness survival show, the contestants can be seen “dressing” and cooking dead animals (not always animals they killed themselves, but sometimes). MC Zoo, a wildlife rehabber in her “real” life, feels a little guilty about all the carnage, but she’s willing to accept it if it’s ‘necessary’ – e.g., for food vs. fun. Additionally, she had no problem consuming meat before participating in the show, despite being a self-described “animal lover.” After the show, Zoo and her husband plan on adopting a “retired” greyhound. (Petfinder gets a name drop here!)

 

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One Response to “Book Review: The Last One, Alexandra Oliva (2016)”

  1. Katie//Girl About Library Says:

    I also really enjoyed this book. I agree that the premise was a little hard to swallow at first, but her writing is really good! And it made the book so enjoyable. Can’t wait to see what she writes next. Great review!

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