Review: ‘The Last One’ by Alexandra Olivia
“The Last One” explores the boundaries between reality and fiction and the ways in which the mind creates truth.
Zoo, as she is known by the show’s producers, is one of 12 contestants on a wilderness survival reality show. Three narratives weave together to form the story: an overview of the filming of the show, an online forum thread, and Zoo’s memories and experiences. The world from which Zoo enters the reality show is not the one that it becomes, as an epidemic sweeps through the country.
The book begins with an editor and producer discussing the show’s immense scope and challenges, their plans and scheming. The contestants believe they’re competing for cash prizes, but in truth, the producers plan to film until all but one of the contestants are unable to continue.
The contestants are given a phrase to utter when they withdraw from the show, “Ad tenebras dedi.”
Zoo earns her nickname because she works with animals, and each of the show’s contestants is known by a nickname. In her memories, she thinks of the others by their given names, not knowing the producer’s nicknames, but Olivia makes the competitors’ personalities clear enough for the reader to connect the two.
Zoo applies for the show for one last adventure before starting a family with her husband, a motivation that haunts her nightmares and forces her to face her inner disquiet.
Her personal challenges include this restlessness, her poor eyesight and her refusal to break any rules outlined for the show.
Those rules include no driving, no weapons, and no entering houses, which is understandable for a TV show challenge, but detrimental and potentially deadly when surviving in an epidemic-seized world.
The passages from Zoo’s perspectives are detailed almost to the point of tedium in her actions of daily survival: starting fires, building shelters, and finding food. The focus on detail does contribute to the sense of observing her, like watching her on television, with each element being critical to her success and survival.
When the reader first catches up to her in what seems to be the present, she is intensely hungry, not having eaten for several days. Zoo maintains her belief that the next clue and the next reward are just around the corner.
Her exhaustion and pain are clear from the start, but her tenacity drives her to continue and never utter the phrase indicating her defeat.
Everything Zoo comes across she evaluates as a clue, a hint to guide her. The difficulties she faces, as well as good fortune like finding an outdoor store for fresh clothes and gear, are framed in the challenge/reward system created by the reality show. Even the adolescent she comes across becomes part of the show, until she can no longer hold onto the belief that the things she has seen and experienced are part of a game.
Her break finally comes when the unthinkable happens.
Zoo recognizes that she has been reframing all her experiences in the context of the dramatic and twisted minds of the show’s producers to keep herself focused. Does she fight harder, knowing she has to win? Is the motivation of winning stronger, or easier to accept than the one of surviving in a changed world?
Zoo and her fellow contestants struggle with hunger, fear, and navigating through unfamiliar territory, all with the goal of winning, not survival. Zoo’s mental adherence to game-mode keeps her in this winning mindset, a certain safety net of fantasy allowing her to pursue the need to look after herself.
Another intriguing aspect of the book is the sense of being watched, recorded and edited. Zoo assumes there are cameras in gas stations, drones above, and that no matter where she is she is being recorded. In many instances during the show-filming portions of the story, a character says or does something they acknowledge will be edited out, or edited in such a way as to change reality to the story.
The Last One asks more questions than it answers. Part of the appeal of reality television is speculating what the viewer would do if they were in that situation.
For this story, the questions become how long the reader thinks they would believe they were still part of the show, what would their breaking point have been and how would they react once they accepted the truth?
Recommended for fans of “Station Eleven,” survivalist shows and stories and psychological fiction.
Rose Peacock is a library technician at Cook Memorial Library.