After American Born Chinese I was eager to read something else by Gene Luen Yang and the Library finally got a copy of Level Up. If I had written this review after reading Level Up it probably would have consisted of a copy/paste synopsis and a shrug. I don’t expect to connect nor identify in some way to every book I read, but this one was fairly inaccessible to me after the first read. I would say that the primary reason was the cultural gap—not the nintendo gaming part, I got that; I had a few friends in college who would rather play than go to class. And while I do have the juvenile sense of humor to get the potty jokes (both literal and figurative), for some reason I had little patience for it. And as for the magical realism…the “four adorable angels” were just creepy. It really comes down to the fact that I hadn’t expected the novel would require the patience it did. And for the most part, it does pay off. Yang is unusual in his storytelling technique. While he may be trying to entertain the reader throughout, Level Up does require a thorough sitting—and perhaps a much more specific audience (which I can respect).
Struggling with bad grades, a video game addiction, and his father’s death, Dennis Ouyang is on the verge of dropping out of college when four adorable angels appear and take charge of his life. But nothing is ever what it seems when life, magic, and gaming collide. ~back cover copy.
Thien Pham’s art is really good; looser in form than I would have expected. I really responded to the color choices, texture, and the use of the wash with the pen/ink. The clean straightforward formatting of the panels is refreshing. I like creative use of illustration/text in the comic medium, don’t get me wrong, after so much of it though, the clean pages are a pleasure. The subtleties, however, should not be underestimated. Pham knows what he is doing. He definitely sets the tone/mood of the piece.
Reading the dedications is a good habit to form, and Yang and Pham’s dedication creates a nice primer for the story: “Dedicated to our brothers Jon and Thinh, both of whom work in the medical field, for being the good Asian sons.” Their protagonist feels the pressure of being a good son and to excel within the expectations given him. Where Dennis’ passion and obvious talents lie in video games, that is not considered a valid pursuit according to his parents. He eventually folds to the pressure, haunted by what first appears to be “adorable little angels” to help him succeed in fulfilling his destiny—which lies in a field that he can hardly stomach (no pun intended). Dennis’ pursuit would seem more noble if it didn’t come off as such a painful ordeal. Even great friends and a potential romance cannot offset impending doom. The story takes its time before culminating in the Dennis confronting that which haunts him and his future, to say nothing of his sense of self worth. I liked Yang’s use of the angels and what they represent as well as the pac-man imagery.
The ending is a bit clean, with an all was not for nothing kind of gesture; a necessity after all the time and angst expended in the course of the story. To be fair, Dennis is shown to have choices; he could be successful in any of his decisions. This is important to understand because it focuses on the self-imposed limitations like familial and cultural expectations—which in this novel, creates a conflict between his Chinese heritage and his American one. I think part of my not understanding his choices (and the story overall) comes down to not being able to discern where to apply the idea of “we must learn to eat bitterness of our own” (82) aspect of the conflict. Dennis’ mother confused me, which may be due, in part, to the story being told from Dennis’ (first person) perspective.
While I didn’t enjoy Level Up as much as American Born Chinese, I could enjoy it after the second read and spending time letting it steep. Is it to obvious to say that Level Up will resonate more easily with those who can do more than intellectualize the scenarios played out? Because I think Yang has another gem here given the right audience. I’m happy to see First Second continuing to support his work.
Story by Gene Luen Yang; Art by Thien Pham
First Second Books, 2011.
hardcover, 160 pages.
Check out: Moye for 8Asians.com hosts a great interview in her article “Level Up’s Gene Luen Yang & Thien Pham on Asian Parenting & Video Games”