Peter Babiak moved to Vancouver from Ontario in 1994 and teaches at Langara College. Garage Criticism is his first book. Laced with wry, biting insight, this collection of essays is a rout of contemporary mores and a defiance of superficial culture, a book that questions the real cause and purpose of many North American frills and follies.
No topic is taboo. Nonchalantly riffing on the locals and lovers and landscapes that surround him, the result is a confluence of savvy, surprisingly funny critiques. He dismantles best-selling books and oversensitive students, analyzes the rebound of feminism, points out the hypocrisy of fighting terrorism with terror, discusses marriage and the merits of infidelity, Vancouver’s thriving poetry, the sadism of happiness, and more. He even takes a dig at Nabokov, that “literary genius but pretentious dick.”
In “Julia’s nipples and God’s Barometer,” Babiak laments the creative shrivel of lusty literature while the cult fanaticism of Fifty Shades of Grey merits pop notoriety. In “The View from Zero Avenue” he chastises America’s “unsophisticated arrogance” and sacrosanct free-market economics, which seems prescient given the recent U.S. election.
Babiak’s wit is relentless. While discussing the growing student apathy for language in “F you, Professor: Tumblr, Triggers and the Allergies of Reading,” readers are presented with a convoluted, misspelled sentence (think pre-teen texting) from one of his first year literature students. “My soul goes through paroxysms when I look at this word carnage,” he writes, “but mostly my head just really hurts because at root I’m a good person.”
Readers will note impressionist reflections from other writers who’ve influenced him — Nietzsche, Baudelaire, and Kerouac’s laid-back jive. But it is the confluence of Babiak’s own character and charisma, subtly tugging like a river current beneath swift sentences and sharp perspectives, that gives the writing its attitude and the book its unexpected hook.
The colloquial tone of Garage Criticism renders high-brow ideas in curt terms, offers a symbolic middle finger to pedants, and elevates mundane, workaday moments into thought-provoking “melon scratchers” such as “A poem is like cleavage barely glimpsed beneath taffeta.” He can describe an interaction in his office with a student as “so unnervingly wanton and such a bamboozling conundrum that it left me metaphysically overwhelmed.” This play with language, though usually entertaining, sometimes feels like blowing smoke, but Babiak, a father who has learned to keep his own pretentious harangues in check, doesn’t hesitate to knock the legs out from beneath his own armchair. He lampoons his own flamboyant use of language in “Purloined Gigabytes and the Secret Capable of Taking Place between Us.” While expressing his desire for “reanimating my years with the sensuality that had drained from them,” he observes “only a voluptuous yearning … the kind that leads to the sublime disorientation of landing in a stranger’s bed, could give life the semblance of art … I still wonder if that’s just an absurdly pretentious way of saying I wanted to get laid.”
In its later chapters, the book has moments too where it dissects quandaries, such as the significance of untold secrets or the painful knowing of friendship as finite, and it offers unique angles of understanding that endow the book with significance. Discussing the existential incongruity of happiness in “Waiting for the Catastrophe of My Life to Be Beautiful,” he writes, “Happiness, if it exists as something more or less tangible, must be in the sub-microscopic moments when we give our attention to a soul because that soul has sought us out.” A few paragraphs later he proposes that “Nothing is quite as agonizing as exposing your soul with all its strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vanities, and nothing is quite as joyful as someone who displays their soul for you.”
Using personal anecdotes and family sub-themes to establish and bolster his essays, Babiak’s intimate histories grow progressively more potent. Somewhere, a transition takes place and the garage critic is replaced by the father, lover, the middle-aged man searching for some meaning in a silly world. The wisdom of this book doesn’t come from its dismantling of vacuous modern culture, but from its subtle examination of fatherhood, the follies of man, the inevitable fray of husbandry, and the tribulation of losing the ones you love. These are messages that are left nearly unsaid, unseen, but like stars resting beneath a sunrise, achingly they remain long after the book is closed.