Level Up

Level UpSummary: How do you decide what to do with your life? This question took up much of my head space when I was in my late teens, and it’s also the central question of this book. This is video games vs. med school- a tale inspired by my brother (a medical doctor) and illustrated by my brother-in-cartooning Thien Pham (not a medical doctor).


Level Up, by Gene Luen Yang and Thiem Pham 7.5

‘Level Up’ is a book I picked up from the library without having heard anything about it or its author before; it popped up in the “recently reviewed” section of their webpage and I was drawn to the Game Boy-inspired cover and title.

I’m not a gamer, but I am interested in pop culture to some degree, and gaming has become a large part of it. I figured that it could very well be the next ‘Scott Pilgrim’ and, given that it was well-received by another reader, I felt I should give it a chance.

While it was no ‘Scott Pilgrim’, it was nonetheless a pleasant surprise: it tells the story of Dennis Qyang, a teenager who turns his back on his obsessive love of gaming to focus his attentions on his studies – after he is confronted by strange angels one night.

Driven by a desire to meet his destiny, which he is told is to become a gastroenterologist, he spends every waking hour on his scholastic achievements, only to realize that he may not be perfectly suited for it. But now he has to confront his parents’ expectations.

…and disappointment.

I really enjoyed the real-world situations in ‘Level Up’, and loved how Yang tied them in with a touch of fantasy and gaming references (in particular, Pac-Man). I felt that he showed a good understanding of teen psychology and liked how he peppered the work with humour.

But I was challenged by the notion that Dennis should start thinking more about his own happiness, that he quit his studies for the abstract notion of being a video game tester and competitor. To me, it made him out to be self-absorbed and with no long-term vision.

Having said this, Yang brought the story back full circle to bring balance to the work in the end.

Unfortunately, it was a bit of a throw-away: whereas his first revelation, the one that showed him the falacy of his parents’ expectations, got extensive coverage and was done in a creative fashion, this final one was merely a pixel on his 2-bit screen.

To me, that didn’t give enough weight to the moral of the story, which was that instant gratification and short-term vision can certainly be pleasing, but they don’t make one happy in the end. I really wish that Yang hadn’t wrapped up his book in such a hurry.

Still, all in all, ‘Level Up’ was a breezy and smart read and it makes me want to explore his oeuvre a bit more. Based on the quotes on the back of this book, his other works sound like they shouldn’t be missed. ‘Level Up’, it turns out, may be my BTM.

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