Monday, May 2, 2011

Achievement Unlocked -- "Level Up" by Gene Luen Yang and Thien Pham

If there's one thing that nearly all teenagers are adept at, it's escapism.  And hell, who can blame them?  School, peer pressure, zits,'s enough to make any sane person crawl into a hole.  These challenges can be even more intense for many first generation Americans, as the examples of risk and sacrifice set by their parents can be intimidating, to say the least.  When confronted with his father's death, Dennis Ouyang -- Level Up's awkward teenage lead -- attempts to finds sanctuary from such pressures in video games.  But try as he may, he cannot escape the life his father wanted so strongly for him to lead.

That is not to say that Level Up doesn't have its moments of levity.  Romantically, Dennis is both the pursuer and the pursued, and negotiates the two as many teenagers do -- by making a whole lot of mistakes. Dennis dumps his video game friend the moment he first succumbs to the pressure of his father's hopes for him, learning only much later what a mistake it was.  It is Yang's ability to balance the everyday teenage drama with more difficult issues such as ethnic identity and death that makes his work such a great read for both teenagers and adults.

Literally haunted by his father's memory in the form of four tiny angels that only he can see, Dennis flip-flops between accepting the life his father had planned for him (as a gastroenterologist) and carving out a life of his own.  These angels attempt to instill in Dennis "the will to endure", which, as anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one knows, is no small task.  Here, Yang flexes his unique skill of using magical realism to convey complicated messages about race and identity.  Thought the plot in Level Up is less nuanced than in American Born Chinese, Yang's best known work, the import of the magical aspects of the story remains.  These angels are relentless in their pressure on Dennis to "fulfill [his] destiny;" so that the effect of this device is to leave the reader feeling that this is not simply the wish of a 'bossy' parent, but something much greater.  With the help of his med school friends, he finds a way to cope with these expectations, eventually confronting the angels.  In this moving scene, Dennis gains insight into his father's own struggles, setting him on the road to understanding just why his father believed so intently in his son's 'destiny'.

One need not be the children of immigrants, however, to appreciate Dennis' difficulties, and in this way Yang offers teenage readers what many so desperately crave -- inspiration that they too can one day take control of their own lives, whether inspired by or despite the wishes of their parents.

Pham's art is reminiscent of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series in that it is not meant to dazzle with technical mastery, but only to function effectively as a storytelling vehicle.  Simple figures, colors, and layouts are all that is needed, as long as those stick figures communicate a message that words alone cannot.  What works for Diary of a Wimpy Kid works for Level Up; clean, straightforward storytelling that in its simplicity somehow accentuates how complex adolescence and young adulthood can be.  Coupled with the sincerity and heart present in all of Yang's work, Level Up is an achievement indeed.