Seattle writer Alexandra Oliva makes an impressive debut with her first novel, “The Last One,” in which a young woman competes in what appears to be a grim and realistic reality TV show. Oliva appears Friday, July 15, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
A woman wanders through a deserted Northeastern landscape. Where can she build a shelter? Does she have enough water to survive? And, most important, when will it all be over so she can go home?
In her debut novel, “The Last One” (Ballantine, 294 pp., $26), Alexandra Oliva takes this (possibly) post-apocalyptic setting, grafts on a knowledgeable skewering of the inner workings of reality television and gives us a gripping story of survival.
I say “possibly” because even though we’re told in the opening chapter that an editor on the production team of a reality-television show will be “the first to die,” we don’t know right away where the devastation comes from, or just how widespread it will be. Not yet.
The author of “The Last One” will appear at 7 p.m. Friday, July 15, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave.; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
The story unfolds in chapters alternating between the setup and execution of the reality show “In the Dark,” and the first-person narrative of one of the show’s contestants, known only as Zoo.
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When we discover Zoo, she is foraging through an empty market, keenly aware of the overhead cameras that she assumes are recording her every move. She believes that she is on an extended “Solo Challenge,” where every empty building, or wild animal, or accident scene is an obstacle put in her way by the production staff of the show. But is it? Has something unthinkable happened in the outside world?
This is the genius of Oliva’s storytelling. As the story unfolds, we don’t know what is “real” and what is possibly a very well-executed television program.
Fans of reality TV will recognize many of the genre’s mainstays: the preening, B-list celebrity host, the challenges that more-than-likely come with a twist, the “confessionals” (where the contestants speak directly to the camera), and the handpicked-for-maximum-diversity contestants, all given names that reflect their professions (Air Force, Banker, Carpenter Chick, Waitress).
Oliva is so spot-on with her depiction of reality-television shows that I wonder if she’s ever worked on one. She also has fun with reality-TV show fans, excerpting comments from online-chat boards throughout the story.
As Zoo forges on, losing her glasses, worrying about her husband back home, she is confronted with increasingly stronger signs that the world around her has changed forever. Her stubbornness turns to grit and determination and then heartbreak as she presses on to discover the truth, not only about her surroundings, but herself.
A Seattle resident, Oliva makes a stunning debut with this page turner, and becomes a writer to watch.