Terry's Reviews > Level Up

Level Up by Gene Luen Yang
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's review
Jul 16, 11

bookshelves: cdcs-young-adult, 2011-books
Read in July, 2011

As much as I loved "The Eternal Smile," this is Gene Luen Yang's best book since "American Born Chinese." In fact, it might even be better. While I loved the first book's artwork, multiple storylines, and large scale, there is something to this book's more focused approach. The artwork is simpler, more humble--it's blocky, it doesn't play with video games in form (beyond the clever cover and section headings), but in its simplicity there is a home-made (for lack of a better word) quality that helps bring the reader closer to the protagonist. The protagonist himself is a great everyman, someone who the reader is able to relate to, while he thankfully lacks the whiny-ness and victimization this type of character could easily have been reduced to. Dennis is about to drop out of college, when he is driven back by four greeting-card angels, who propel him forward on the path he thinks his father has chosen for him: to be a gastroenterologist. In the hands of another writer, this character could be a litany of complaints, but in Yang's novel Dennis makes clear, deliberate choices and never asks for more than the reader's observation as he goes through the journey of growing up. Dennis is not angry, but resigned, at the way life is going for him, while also realizing that he is really the only one to blame for his predicament.

On the surface, Dennis appears to be a simple character with an obvious choice, but the novel is simple in form and content while never being simplistic--the novel walks that line nicely, as it does with the other characters--Dennis' three friends in med school; his mother; his gamer friend--all feel like specific, real people, while dealing with issues of love and friendship that are universal. While "American Born Chinese" had the reader working much harder to figure things out and was a graphic novel on a grander scale, this novel's strength is complexity in the guise of simplicity: the characters, their problems, the choice between being a doctor or a gamer, the artwork. As the novel reaches its conclusion, I felt more emotionally connected to this character than I have to a character in a long while. Without giving anything away, I was impressed with how Yang resolves the 'doctor vs. gamer' dilemma, without reducing it to simple choices. Yang's conclusion is much more nuanced than 'don't listen to your parents,' or 'do what you want to do,' or any other obvious morals one could come up with from this scenario. In the final section, the novel goes in a different direction to look at the 'doctor vs. gamer' issue that has been unaddressed but under the surface the entire time. It is this final section that made the book a five star read for me--just when you think the novel is over with a simple conclusion, it's not (just like lives in a video game!). In the last few pages, the author subtly leads his protagonist to finally deal with the emotional crux of the issue, and both Dennis and the reader arrive at a deep understanding of what's most important in life.
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