From a presumptive presidential nominee who counts a reality television show among his accomplishments to the fandom of shows such as Survivor and The Bachelor, it’s clear reality television has firmly rooted itself in popular culture.
The genre, which can be traced back to the PBS program An American Family about the Louds, is constantly re-inventing itself — shredding the envelope rather than pushing it.
With this in mind, the premise of Alexandra Oliva’s The Last One sounds intriguing. The story is built around a survivalist reality show — think Survivor on methamphetamine. The producers are calculating snakes out to drive ratings with conflict. Partway through the show, everything goes awry when a virus of some kind takes out much of the population east of the Mississippi.
‘The Last One’ is author Alexandra Oliva’s debut novel.
Unfortunately, Oliva’s execution is choppy and without depth. The story falls flat. Instead of being an emotional roller coaster with thrilling dips and turns, The Last One is more of a locomotive, just chugging along.
Oliva excels at capturing the insanity and duplicity that have become trademarks of reality television. Readers go behind the scenes to glimpse the machinations that the producers have planned. Nothing is off limits. Cast members are brought on to fit a type, edits give viewers a false sense of what happened, and dangerous scenarios are created merely for the reaction.
The contestants are reduced to archetypes. Oliva strips them of their humanity by referring to them by labels rather than names. Generic labels such as “Zoo,” “Black Doctor” and “Tracker” are anything but personal. These people are there to be exploited, manipulated and, in some cases, humiliated.
But this lack of humanity works against the characters. Much of the story is told from Zoo’s point of view, but there’s no emotional investment for readers. For most of the story, Zoo is more concerned about competing than taking into account the situation at hand.
In her mind, all the weird stuff she encounters is just part of the show, a point of view that becomes hard to believe as the story progresses.
According to her website, Alexandra Oliva did research for her novel by taking a 14-day wilderness survival course at Boulder Outdoor Survival School in Utah.
Even when she’s told what’s happening, she dismisses it, saying that story is devoid of the emotion she thinks should naturally be there. That sentiment encapsulates what’s missing from the story.
Oliva shifts points of view, from Zoo’s first-person narration, to an omniscient narrator who drops spoilers from the very beginning. The narrator explains what’s already happened with the show and how some characters will die. But there’s no explanation of the origins of the virus. The flashbacks also never really capture the mood.
Zoo is on a perilous journey, but her narration is flat. Neither her voice nor the narrator’s ever reflects the fear, anxiety, panic, sorrow or the host of other emotions that would likely accompany a scenario such as this.
Zoo’s concern about the husband she has left behind seems forced and somewhat insincere. And reaction to the events unfolding around her seem far from plausible. For example, she’s roaming the countryside and suburbs but rarely sees anyone alive — she does see and smell corpses, but she easily convinces herself they are “props” for the show.
It’s hard to believe that anyone could be that disoriented, short of being downright delusional, to not realize something is wrong. Zoo’s adventures while she’s on her trek are also too contrived.
In the end, The Last One fails to deliver.
The Last One
☆☆ (out of five)
- By Alexandra Oliva
- Ballantine Books, $26
- Audio: Random House Audio, $45; narrated by Mike Chamberlain and Nicol Zanzarella.