Book 81: The Last One



"The production team tries to get everyone out, but they're on Solo Challenges and widespread. There were contingency plans in place, but not for this. It's a spiral like that child's toy: a pen on paper, guided by plastic. A pattern, then something slips and- madness. Incompetency and panic collide. Good intentions give way to self-preservation. No one knows for sure what happened, small scale or large. No one knows precisely what went wrong. But before he dies, the producer will know this much: Something went wrong." 

Dates Read: August 22-23, 2016

Rating: 9/10

Someone I went to high school with was on Survivor while I was in law school. Watching it to watch him was the first time I'd seen the show, which has been on since I was in high school. I didn't know the guy in question very well...I'd been in the advanced math class with his brother, but the contestant himself was a year or two behind me. Before watching it, I couldn't understand what drew people to it...a hotel without TV is about as close to wilderness survival as I want to find myself. But as I watched it until the guy I knew got voted off (which was quite late in the process), I started to get it a little. Proving yourself against physical and mental odds has driven human achievements like climbing mountains and running marathons and exploring new worlds from time immemorial.

The reality show at the center of Alexandra Oliva's The Last One promises to make Survivor look like child's play. The producers have a summer-blockbuster-sized budget and are planning to get three episodes per week on the air. There's no set end point...once all contestants but one utter a quit phrase to be taken out of play, it will be over, with the final person standing winning $1 million. Since it's the first season, no one knows what to expect. After a series of intense group challenges complete with expensive props and head games to thin the heard a little, the contestants are broken up and sent on solo challenges. They've been told to expect to not see even camera people (the production has drones and hidden cameras), so when one of the contestants, known as Zoo, finds herself wandering alone for a long while, she's not too disturbed. What she and the other contestants don't know is that as they're out there, a global pandemic is decimating the population of the country and the world.

In an interesting and perceptive technique, in the chapters that are presented in the third person, the contestants on the show are referred to by nicknames, like Engineer and Air Force and Asian Chick. Our protagonist, Zoo, is so called because she works at a wildlife center. We come into her story in media res, as she discovers an abandoned supermarket and scavenges for supplies. She steps over what she assumes are very well-made prop bodies. The reader knows that people are dying in large numbers and those bodies are almost certainly real, but out of touch with the outside world, what can Zoo think but to assume that it's all part of the game? Which is exactly what she does think, in the chapters that are told from her perspective. Knowing that the point of the show is to push her to her limits and drive her to quit, she pushes through a bout of severe illness and an attack by a wild coyote, among other things, by rationalizing them as just tricks by the producers.

The obstacles she faces and the turns her journey takes are best left to discovery by the reader. If you're anything like me, you'll get to them quickly. This is the first book I've read in a long time (even of ones I've really enjoyed) that's honest-to-goodness kept me up at night to read more. Most of the time, books I blow through really fast have a lower rating, because when I don't like I book I'm more inclined to push through it as rapidly as I can so I can move on to something I might like better. This book I raced through because I genuinely didn't want to put it down. I read it at lunch, while I got my oil changed on my car, while I was waiting for a meeting to start. The power of the human mind to convince itself of whatever it wants to is not to be underestimated, and the suspense of waiting to see when it would be that Zoo would finally see that the world around her was in real trouble keeps the narrative tension low but constant (her inability to see is literal as well as figurative...early in the book, her glasses are damaged and that helps the suspension of disbelief that the actual magnitude of events doesn't impress itself upon her sooner). I absolutely loved it and highly recommend it!

Tell me, blog friends...have you ever known anyone on a reality show?

One year ago, I was reading: Zodiac

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