I was really taken in by American Born Chinese, especially in the way that the author, Gene Luen Yang, played around with a single story told through four different perspectives. It was a pretty ingenious way of telling the story of his main character, and while it wasn’t necessarily original, it helped to drive the meaning of the story home. Level Up is another of his stories, and while it doesn’t have the same sort of method of telling the story, the meaning behind the story is just as effective.
In Level Up, Dennis Ouyang is an Asian-American teenager who is coming to terms with his passion and skill for video games, contrasted with the expectations his father has for him. His father’s death spurs his motivations, in both directions, but when he starts to falter in what his father expected from him, some strange things begin happening which push him in the right direction. How he manages to reconcile his feelings for both is interesting, and each time you think you might have figured out what Dennis is going to do, Yang plays with the characters a bit more, keeping you engrossed in what’s happening.
Ultimately, Level Up isn’t going to get the recognition that American Born Chinese received. It’s a good story, with a layer of depth to it that’s almost unexpected, but it doesn’t have the same kind of oomph that ABC had. I think it’s partly because ABC has a premise that’s a little more universal than Level Up has. Even though both stories are about teenagers coming to terms with their identities, I think ABC focuses more on family, while Level Up is a little more focused on video games and medical school. It’s a bit more limiting in scope, and I can’t help but feel that that’s why the book doesn’t feel as significant.
Anyway, it’s probably unfair to compare the two books, but ABC won the National Book Award, so it’s hard to ignore that potential when looking at Yang’s other works. I see that he has another graphic novel I haven’t read — The Eternal Smile – and I’m sure to read that one, as well. I don’t know that I will expect any of his other works to measure up to ABC, but I do enjoy his method of storytelling, and the depth that he adds to his characters.