CONJUNCTIONS:17 Fall 1991
Order and Flux in Northampton
David Foster Wallace


BARRY DINGLE, CROSS-EYED PURVEYOR of bean sprouts, harbors for Myrnaloy Trask, operator of Xerox and regent of downtown Northampton's most influential bulletin board at Collective Copy, an immoderate love.
      Myrnaloy Trask, trained Reproduction Technician, unmarried woman, vegetarian, flower-child tinged faintly with wither, overseer and editor of Announcement and Response at the ten-foot-by-ten-foot communicative hub of a dizzying wheel of leftist low-sodium aesthetes, a woman politically correct, active in relevant causes, slatternly but not unerotic, all-weather wearer of frayed denim skirts and wool knee-socks, sexually troubled, ambiguous sexual past, owner of one spectacularly incontinent Setter/Retriever bitch, Nixon, so named by friend Don Megala because of the dog's infrangible habit of shitting where it eats: Myrnaloy has eyes only for Don Megala: Don Megala, middle-aged liberal, would-be drifter, maker of antique dulcimers by vocation, by calling a professional student, a haunter of graduate hallways, adrift, holding fractions of Ph.D.'s in everything from Celtic phonetics to the sociobiology of fluids from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, presently at work on his seventh and potentially finest unfinished dissertation, an exhaustive study of Stephen Dedalus's sublimated oedipal necrophilia vis à vis Mrs. D. in Ulysses, an essay tentatively titled "The Ineluctable Modality of the Ineluctably Modal."
      Add to the above Trask-data the fact that, though Barry Dingle's spotlessly managed franchise, The Whole Thing Health Food Emporium, is located directly next to Collective Copy on Northampton's arterial Great Awakening Avenue, Myrnaloy has her nutritional needs addressed at The Whole Thing's out-of-the-way, sawdust-floored competition, Good Things to Eat, Ltd., the proprietor of which, one Adam Baum, is a crony of Megala, and add also that The Whole Thing is in possession of its own Xerox copier, and the following situation comes into narrative focus: Myrnaloy Trask has only the sketchiest intuition that Barry Dingle even exists, next door.
      For Barry Dingle, though, the love of Myrnaloy Trask has become the dominant emotional noisemaker in his quiet life, the flux-ridden state of his heart, a thing as intimately close to Dingle as Myrnaloy is forever optically distant or unreal.
      Suspend and believe that the consuming, passionate love of Myrnaloy Trask has in fact become defined and centered as a small homunculoid presence inside Barry Dingle, a doll-sized self all its own, with the power of silent speech and undisguised ambitions to independent action. Barry Dingle's love sees itself as the catalyst that can transform Barry Dingle from a neutral to a positive charge in life's delicate equation. It sees itself as having the power to remake, reform, reconstitute Barry Dingle. In fact -- since facts are the commodity at issue, here -- Barry Dingle's love of Myrnaloy Trask wants in some ultimate sense to be Barry Dingle, and has lately launched an aggressive campaign to assume control of Dingle's life, to divert and even divorce Dingle from his seven-year definition as manager of The Whole Thing, from his hard-learned disposition to passivity and mute fear: in short, for those who know him, from the very Dingleness of Barry Dingle.


The birth of Barry Dingle's love for Myrnaloy Trask can be fixed generally at a present some two years back, when The Whole Thing, like the rest of the health-food industry, is scrambling wildly to capitalize on the American consumer's growing enthusiasm for bran. The precise two-year-old moment when the crossed eyes, healthy heart, modest mind and tame history of Barry Dingle consummated their need for intersection at the point of object-choice can be identified as the moment 4:30pm on 15 June 1981, when Dingle, arranging a cunningly enticing display of bran-walnut muffins on the recycled-aluminum shelves of The Whole Thing's display window, finds himself staring, as only the cross-eyed can stare, into the smoke-dark window of a Northampton Public Transit Authority bus, halted on the street outside by one of Northampton's invidious and eternal red lights. In the sunlight off the sienna glass is the muted reflected image of Myrnaloy Trask, next door, outside Collective Copy, in her denim skirt and Xerox apron, editorially scanning C.C.'s public-announcement bulletin board's collection of fliers and hand-lettered ads, searching out the irrelevant, the non-progressive, the uncleared.
      To see and feel anything like what Barry Dingle feels as he stares slack-jawed through his glasses, his store's glass, into the darkly reflecting glass of the frustrated bus, the student of the phenomenon of Barry Dingle must try to imagine the unimaginable richness, range, promise of the community bulletins before which Myrnaloy establishes herself as culler and control, the board aflutter with bright announcements, Establishment-opprobrium, introduction -- bids for attention from kyphotic-lesbian support groups, Maoist coffeehouses, organic-garden-plot rentals, dentists who eschew all mercury and alum, obscurely-oriented political parties with titles longer than their petitioned rosters of names, sitar instructors, anorexia crisis lines, Eastern and Mid-Eastern expanders of spiritual consciousness, bulimia crisis lines, M.D.'s in healing with crystals and wheat, troupes of interpretive tap-dancers, holistic masseurs, acupuncturists, chiropractic acupuncturists, marxist mimes who do Kapital in dumbshow, typists, channelers, nutrition consultants, Brecht-only theater companies, Valley literary joumals with double-digit circulations, on and on -- a huge, flat, thumbtack- and staple-studded, central affair, sheltered from the apathetic vicissitudes of New England weathers by a special Collective Copy awning. The board is the area's avant-garde ganglion, a magnet drawing centripetally from the center of town on the diffracted ions of Northampton's vast organizational night, each morning bristling brightly with added claims to existence and efficacy, each late afternoon edited, ordered, wheat-from-chaffed by Myrnaloy Trask, who stands now, reflected in the dun shield of the bus glass, snake-haired in the June wind, one nail-bitten finger on a shiny leaflet of debatable value or legitimacy, deciding on the words' right to be; and at this moment, 4:30pm 15 June 1981, she brings up behind herself her left leg -- in the bus window a distant right leg -- bends it at the pale knee to effect the ascension of an ankle, pulls a sag-laddered wool knee-sock tight up the back of a white calf; and the movement, the unconscious gentle elevation of the thick ankle, is so very demure -- reminiscent finally of the demure elevation of Sandra Dee's own sturdy calf as Gidget kissed interchangeable emmetropic young men in the climaxes of all the interchangeable Gidget films that informed so much of Barry Dingle's childhood -- the movement so very young, tired, unselfconscious, sad, right, natural, reflected, distant, unsexily sexy, slatternly erotic ...
      ... so very whatever, in short, that off the bus' window and through the TWT display pane and Dingle's thick hot angled glasses the parallaxed leg-image tears, rending Dingle's sense of self and place, plunging with a crackle of sexual ozone into the still surface of the stagnant ankle-deep pond that defines at this moment the Dingleness of Dingle; and through the miraculous manipulations of primal human ontemes too primal and too human even to be contemplated, probably, it gives birth to life: from the clotted silt of the uninterestingness at the center of Barry Dingle there emerges the salamanderial zygote of a robust, animate thing, a life, Barry Dingle's immoderate homunculoid love, conceived out of the impossibly distant refracted epiphany of Myrnaloy Trask, demure in her now-not-fallen socks, a Myrnaloy who is as unaware as carbon itself that she has effected the manufacture of life through her role in the interplay of forces probably beyond the comprehension of everything and everyone involved.


Northampton is located on the northern fringe of Massachusetts' Pioneer Valley on the eastern edge of the Berkshire Mountains. To the south lie Amherst and Springfield and Hartford CT. Incorporated 1698, Northampton is the eighth-oldest township in the state. It is the home of Smith College for Women. The college's Congregational Church, still semi-erect, saw the 1711-1717 delivery of the Great-Awakening jeremiads of dentist/theologian Solomon Stoddard, in which the reverend foretold the world's cold and imminent end, characterizing that end as a kind of grim entropic stasis already harbinged by, among other portents: poor nutrition and its attendant moral and dental decay; the increasing infertility of modern woman; the rise of the novel; the Great Awakening itself.
      The city grew to economic prominence in the late eighteenth century after more space was cleared for development and commercial intercourse. Space for development and commercial intercourse was cleared all over the Pioneer Valley by the British commander Lord Jeffrey Amherst, who in 1783-84 won a telling victory over the sly, putatively "peace-loving" native population by providing its tribes with free blankets, each carefully preinfected with smallpox.
      Northampton today enjoys the nation's second-highest percentage of homosexuals, calculated on a per capita basis, a distinction that has earned the city the designation "The San Francisco of the East." It also enjoys the nation's sixth-highest percentage of homeless persons, again per capita, countless capita to be seen each winter night clustered around the tattered flickers of countless trashcan fires. Most enjoyable of all is the nation's lowest percentage of registered Republicans, with the brow-raising total of exactly zero within the corporations limits.^1
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^1 For much more here see W. Deldrick Sperber, "The Sensitive Community: Nutritive, Sexual and Political Ambiguity in Northampton, MA, "Journal of American Studies in Sensitivity, v.IX, nos. 2&3, 1983.

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