Gene Yang is relatively well known as the author of American Born Chinese, a three-headed tale about identity, race, tradition, peer groups and the balancing of all of these issues with dignity. Weighty as that description sounds, Yang used three unrelated, but ultimately converging story lines to sum up all of these issues and the emotions that are tied to them in the climax. Yang focuses on just one story in his newest release Level Up (published by First Second in July of 2011), but all the simple elements of the story effortlessly converge at the climax that at least left a lasting impression on me. Let’s begin, shall we?
Dennis Ouyang is a Chinese-American who is goaded by his parents into studies and a professional attitude, but alas, all the lad wishes to do is play video games. Some levity is brought into the story when Dennis graduates high school with above-average marks, and his father dies of cancer. A paternal guilt complex plagues Dennis as he attends college, and he falls back to his pastime of playing video games , rather than focusing on his studies. Just as his grades fall low enough to put him on academic suspension, a quartet of multi-colored ghosts appear before him to aid in his quest to live up to his father’s dream of attending medical school for a career in gastroenterology. The following plot follows Dennis as his destiny and his own desires duke it out, and eventually, Dennis must find compromise.
The illustrator and colorist is Thiem Pham, who livens up the book with simple visuals and a lightly tinted color palette. The simplification of the visuals isn’t intellectually insulting, and harkens back to the old school pixel characters that Dennis has an obsession with. The character design broadens when Dennis attends medical school and is given a small circle of friends. The simple design also accounts for the simple elements of the story. We aren’t reading Season of Mists, here, but the small elements all add up in the end.
There is much talk of living up to destiny in the plot, and just what exactly that means. Dennis is literally haunted by his father’s expectations, and also has a circle of friends who bring destiny into question. One of the friends was brought up in a similar manner to himself (Asian-American as well), and she thinks that disregarding your parents’ expectations is a horrible thing to do. Another is directly opposed to this idea, and thinks that you should only pursue what you want for yourself. Yet another is in a situation similar to Dennis, as he was once a talented football player, but his own poor judgement led to an episode of paralysis and physical deterioration, so he has instead refocused himself in a new field where he is struggling, but still succeeding. All of these contentions are battled out in the climax in a rather emotional sequence where Dennis talks to a person he looked up to, and then sees him as an equal. Overall, the themes of not meeting expectations (from others and yourself) are dealt with in an honest manner in this book, and I find that to be it’s strongest element.
There’s also a lot about video games, and some frank talk about the more negative aspects of them on young people’s lives. Much like Dennis, I think a lot of us have dreamed of being professional video game players (or reviewers, at second best) and some of have put perhaps more time into that unrealistic aspiration than would be advisable. Turning hobbies into a profession is a dangerous gamble financially and socially, and the enjoyment of the hobby is also threatened. In the frame of this story, the prospect of becoming a professional video game player serves as instant gratification for Dennis, and the prospect of medical school is the more well advised option that he doesn’t enjoy as much. Ultimately, as all high-functioning members of society must, Dennis finds a middle ground, and I think that this lesson is something that young people entering the job market or studying for a profession need to consider.
Overall: I think that Level Up serves as an emotional story and also serves as a mythical primer for our own media-surrounded generation. Choices between long-term goals and instant gratification, living up to expectations, success and failure, and video games are all a big deal here.
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