Publisher: Ballantine. July 12, 2016.
Genre: Literary Dystopian Thriller
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It begins with a reality TV show. Twelve contestants are sent into the woods to face challenges that will test the limits of their endurance. While they are out there, something terrible happens—but how widespread is the destruction, and has it occurred naturally or is it man-made? Cut off from society, the contestants know nothing of it. When one of them—a young woman the show’s producers call Zoo—stumbles across the devastation, she can imagine only that it is part of the game.
Alone and disoriented, Zoo is heavy with doubt regarding the life—and husband—she left behind, but she refuses to quit. Staggering countless miles across unfamiliar territory, Zoo must summon all her survival skills—and learn new ones as she goes.
But as her emotional and physical reserves dwindle, she grasps that the real world might have been altered in terrifying ways—and her ability to parse the charade will be either her triumph or her undoing. -Goodreads
I love reality TV. I love it. So obviously when I read the synopsis of debut novel, The Last One, I had no choice but to read it. And it didn't hurt that it was compared to Station Eleven. Zoo joins a show called In The Dark, which offers a million dollar prize to whoever wins. And how do you win? You have to be the last person standing. The only way contestants are disqualified are if they say the phrase "ad tenebras dedi" and opt to quit themselves. None of them have any idea what the show has in store for them.
The book jumps between different perspectives every chapter, which I generally find fun to read, as I did here. Sometimes we have Zoo, our main character's perspective starting mid-show in the midst of the solo challenge. Then we'll have the editor's perspective, which is pretty much just an omniscient look at the show, with some minor Zoo-bias because he seems to favor her, that starts from the beginning of filming. And every once in a while we get to see some Reddit-like comments about the show's episodes. What the viewers find interesting about the show is that it's almost aired live. Episodes air around a week after the events take place. And the show has an ENORMOUS budget. The contestants do all sorts of interesting, staged challenges, but they've always been pretty overtly staged. Once the solo challenge begins, Zoo is able to justify being alone for so long and having so much territory to hike without seeing anybody because this is where the big budget must have gone. Right?
There is not enough to go around--it's a squirrel. But all three are salivating. Do they fight, do they share, what happens next? A commercial break will delay the question's answer. Once viewers return, the answer comes quick and boring: They share.
This novel is about both the lengths a person will go to to survive, and the lengths they'll go to to delude themselves. To try to justify their choices to themselves. And it's especially interesting to look at that in the context of a reality TV show, where everything can be justified because it's part of "the game." That's the trap Zoo falls into as things get worse and worse for her. Attacked by a rabid animal? It must have been a challenge, what does the producer expect her to do? How would the audience expect her to behave? Meet a random guy who talks about a sickness that killed his whole neighborhood? Maybe he's an actor or the cameraman, so she has to act a certain way in response to his story. And this pattern of justifying her behavior parallels how she's dealt with some choices in her real life, in the past and very recently.
I'm used to being dismissed as harmless, but that's because I usually don't cause any harm. Does he think my fighting him was some last gasp of feminist fury, now dissipated? Is this what he needs to believe?
I can work with that.
A little bit of a slow burn, The Last One has a ton of interesting ideas but not really the pacing of a thriller. The challenges aren't quite exciting enough (and for good reason, because it's a super-staged survival show) and Zoo spends a lot of her time alone thinking very repetitive thoughts. I still really wanted to know how it was going to come together, though, and I'm glad I stayed with it. I absolutely raced through the last 100 pages or so as the stakes got higher and some shit went down. The emotional development of Zoo and the slow reveal of her story and her fate had me gasping and tearing up and desperate for more. Many tears were shed at the end, and I'm not going to say what kind they were. You'll have to read and find out if any Latin falls from the mouth of Zoo. And maybe you'll find out what her actual name is too.