"To provide that boy with the life he has, I've had to eat much bitterness. He must learn to do the same. How will a video game teach him to eat bitterness?"
Hmmm. Gene Luen Yang. He's one of those writers that for me can go either way. He made his reputation with American Born Chinese, the first and (so far) only graphic novel to win the Michael L. Printz award for excellence in young adult fiction. It was fresh and ingenious, and I liked it a lot. He followed up with The Eternal Smile, which got great reviews but left me cold, and Prime Baby , which I thought was clever and funny but less complex than his first book. In Level Up I think we're seeing him return to his strengths. Level Up is relevant, surprising, engaging, imaginative. Writing about the pressures of parental expectations on young people who live in our pleasure-centric culture, Yang invites readers to think about whether it is our destiny to fulfill our family's hopes and dreams, particularly if they have sacrificed their own for us.
Level Up follows the life of Dennis Ouyang, a high-schooler back in the early days of pac-man. Dennis is enthralled by this new game, and eagerly asks his father for a Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas (he does this by taping pictures of it to his father's mirror, his newspaper, the fridge, etc.--he and his dad aren't really big on talking together). His parents, to his crushing disappointment, get him a chemistry set instead and his dad leaves notes around the house entitled "How to get into college", "The job market", and "The virtue of work". There, in a nutshell, is the heart of the story.
Dennis works hard and does well in high school to please his parents, but when his father dies just before high school graduation, Dennis immediately goes to an electronics store and gets a game system. On his way home from the funeral. Literally. He becomes a hard-core gamer, flunking out of his $10,000.00-a-year college because he is too distracted to study or attend classes. And then--a miracle!
Angels enter Dennis's life. Four adorable little floating angels who tell him that his destiny is in gastroenterology ("Great shall you be in your profession!", they earnestly proclaim). Four very bossy angels who seem to have come from his father, who bully the dean into re-admitting him to college, who get him to give away all his games and gaming systems, and who move in with him to keep him on the straight and narrow. But the road to gastroenterology is long, hard, and smelly. Does Dennis have what it takes to endure? And even if he can, should he?
What I like about Level Up (apart from the imaginative twists and turns of the story) is the multi-faceted point of view from which Yang explores this dilemna. Many books, movies, and tv shows for teens are all about living your dreams, letting your passions direct your life, and not letting anything get in your way. Yang shows both sides of the equation: how hard it is to work towards something that doesn't inspire you, but also, how practical goals can keep us from frittering away our lives.
Here's a link to an interesting interview with both Yang and illustrator Pham, and here's a link to Yang's website. And finally, here's a video of Yang and Pham talking up their book at San Diego Comic Con, and a link to a comic Yang made explaining the "secret origins" of Level Up.