Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Reality TV vs the apocalypse

The Last One

By Alexandra Oliva

Publisher: Ballantine Books 

Pub. Date: July 12, 2016

Rating: 2 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

I must admit I have never been a fan of reality TV shows, mainly because they are as far from reality as humans can get without calling it a fantasy. I did get into Survivor for the first three seasons until I realize I could pick out what was scripted and predict every move. And I still regard the very entertaining but phony Pawn Stars as one of my guilty pleasures. That was only one reason I was looking forward to The Last One by Alexandra Oliva which, for most of the hype, appeared to be using the setting of a fictional reality show as a microcosm for human society and for examining the media's manufactured blend of reality and fiction.

In The Last One 12 people are appearing in a new reality show that is a cross between Survivor and The Great Race. It is a different type of reality show in that the participants compete in a "race" where, unknown to them, there is no finish line. They continue until one is left standing and their only way out is to surrender before the end is by saying the words, Ad Tenebrus Dedi. The contestant nicknamed Zoo is on a solo challenge and strays off. She comes across signs of devastation which she thinks is part of the game. Little does she know that the world is experiencing an event of apocalyptic proportions.

The idea is inspired and, at first, the implementation is brilliant. it starts with a prologue that shows the series being structured and gives us a hint of the global disaster to come. After that we get alternating chapters with different perspectives. One is in the first narrative of Zoo as she wanders thinking she is still in the game. The other is third person in which we follow all the contestants as it leads from the beginning to the end. We get a feel for the contestants who are known by their nicknames: Zoo, Rancher, Waitress, Engineer Girl, Black Doctor...yes that last one seems a little off. They resemble not only the stereotypes you see in reality shows but a microcosm of civilization. We learn their real names gradually. Some readers seem to have trouble pairing them with the nicknames but I did not find that an issue. Add to this, the author's clear mastery of her writing style. It is unarguably well written and it carried the story to the finish line.

Yet by the end of the first half of the novel, the brilliance seems to slip away. Zoo is still thinking she is in the game even when everything screams, "No!". The appearance of an young man stretches it to the point of absurdity when she thinks he is the cameraman. We are led to believe that Zoo is very smart yet that assumption is quickly going out the window due to the need to continue this hard to believe scenario. Back at the game, I am wondering what the payoff is, and I mean the payoff for the reader not the participants. With our cast of stereotyped characters and their related actions, I started to wonder if we are seeing an attempt at a Lord of the Flies/Animal Farm styled analogy yet that doesn't really work either. In a way this is a beautiful example of the need for expectation, execution, and finish in a novel. The expectation is beautifully set up. The execution is good at the beginning yet doesn't follow through. And the finish is a whimper.

I wish I could recommend this. Oliva certainly has a home-run novel in her. But this one makes it to third base and get tagged. I do seem in the minority though. . Being the author's first novel, it bodes well for things to come. But all in all, and considering the great start, it ends up a disappointment. I still recommend it over most reality TV shows though.

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