Well, it’s Friday and I’m in love with Gene Luen Yang’s graphic “coming-of-age while being harassed by imaginary supernatural beings” memoir, Level Up. We received our copy from PanMacmillan Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
Nothing is what it seems when life collides with video games.
Dennis Ouyang has always struggled in the shadow of his parents’ expectations: Stay focused in high school, do well in college, go to medical school, and become a gastroenterologist.
But between his father’s death, his academic burnout, and his deep (and distracting) love of video games, Dennis can’t endure. He’s kicked out of college. And that’s when things get . . . weird.
Four adorable—but bossy—angels, straight out of a sappy greeting card, appear and take charge of Dennis’s life. He’s back on track to become a gastroenterologist. But is he living the life he wants?
Partnered with the deceptively simple, cute art of Thien Pham, Gene Yang has returned to the subject he revolutionized withAmerican Born Chinese. Whimsical and serious by turns, Level Up is a new look at the tale that Yang has made his own: coming of age as an Asian American.
There’s nothing better, during a run of large, hefty novels, to kick back with a graphic memoir and revel in the brevity of the text. Having said that, Level Up is probably best enjoyed in two or more sittings, just to allow the pain and indecision of “new adult” angst to sink in. Dennis Ouyang is an all-round good egg it would seem, who is torn between fulfilling his parents’ wishes and chasing his video-game-glory-shaped dream. For a fair bit of the book it feels like poor Dennis can’t do anything right, because whether he is achieving excellence in the field of pixellated reality or intestinal correction, he is plagued by guilt, or the ghost of his father, or general early-adult insecurities about the permanence of one’s initial course choices at university.
I particularly enjoyed how Dennis changes his mind multiple times throughout the book as different information, and family secrets, come to light. It’s quite satisfying and reassuring to know that the choice that Dennis eventually makes is the right one for him, despite the fact that it evinced so much agonizing and drama in its attainment.
I feel the need to mention that Level Up is another addition to the “diversity” canon, as apart from the first-generation Chinese immigrant perspective, there are also Indian and Latino characters making up Dennis’s core group of friends. The differences between Dennis’s life and family responsibilities are highlighted when Dennis’s Caucasian friend can’t understand why Dennis would pursue such a massive undertaking as medical school simply because it’s what his parents expect.
While I haven’t yet mentioned the ghostly, imaginary angels on the cover of the book, this is not because they do not play a major part in the story. These four certainly sit at the creepier end of the angelic spectrum, and demonstrate an unshakable belief that Dennis’s true destiny lies in the field of gastroenterology. To aid him in attaining his destiny, the tiny cherubs cook, clean, wash and generally sort out Dennis’s living arrangements to allow him to concentrate on study. While this may sound like a boon for Dennis, the benefits go hand in hand with the demonic freak-outs to which the angels are prone when Dennis dares to defy their wishes. The angels are an interesting plot device and we discover, in hilarious and unexpected fashion, the real purpose behind their existence toward the end of the novel.
Level Up was both a great brain-break in between much heftier reading responsibilities, and an endearing and authentic snapshot of early adulthood, with all its opportunities and uncertainties. I’d definitely recommend it for when you need a quick reminder that you aren’t the only one wandering around wondering what on earth you are going to do with the rest of your life.
Until next time,