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Thomas Pynchon

Bénédicte Chorier-Fryd
Gilles Chamerois

“A Beat Late”—Rhythmical Oddities in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon

Bénédicte Chorier-Fryd

Texte intégral

1From Mortality and Mercy in Vienna, his first short story, through Mason & Dixon to his later works, Pynchon’s œuvre may be read as a form of resistance to determinations of all kinds. Mason & Dixon rewrites a time in the history of America when a key element in its geographical disposition, later to be known as the Mason-Dixon line, was drawn—a determining boundary for the nation’s future internal strife. No easy line to establish, as the novel amply shows, with the two surveyors in charge forever striving to correct erroneous measurements and approach perfection. The first part of the novel, entitled “Latitudes and Departures,” offers a long digression from the central topic of the Mason-Dixon line and leaves the protagonists to roam at large in the Southern hemisphere, engaged in another mission, before they reach the American continent and set down to their business. In these early chapters, the motif of measurement is recurrent, as in anticipation of its increasingly crucial role as the narrative unfolds. Accurate measurement hinges on the measurer being at the right place at the right time, with the correct unit at hand; yet on a number of occasions, nature and chance seem to gang up against the scientific observers and prevent them from reaching the perfect accuracy or certainty they are after.

2This resistance to determination is also at work on another, less explicitly thematic level: that of the text’s rhythmical structure. “Rhythm” is here to be taken in its musical as well as poetic sense—the pulse of the text, its alternations of accented and unaccented syllables, like the beat in a song or a poem. Though this is narrative prose, it evinces a number of identifiable poetic schemes which come into play with plainly linguistic prosody—the rhythm of ordinary language. On a metatextual level, this foregrounds the question of normative constraints in a way that complexifies the opposition between norm and variation, freedom and determination: poetic prosodic structures impose formal schemes on natural language, while thereby freeing it (notably on the syntactic level) from a number of the constraints of ordinary speech. If one pays close attention to the rhythm of Pynchon’s prose, especially in the long periodic sentences that are the hallmark of his style, one becomes aware of the interplay of established patterns and deviations therefrom, and begins to perceive a network of intra- as well as extra-textual correspondences participating in this general process of resistance.

3Let us listen to these rhythmical oddities, and first see how an early one tunes the reader’s ear to these matters.

“A Beat Late”: to Read is to Listen

4Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon meet in chapter 3, and on this first encounter proceed to an inn, where they are to take their “last chance for civiliz’d Drink” (18). There they are regaled by a song by a Learnèd English Dog—a “somewhat dishevel’d Norfolk Terrier.” After this performance, Dixon takes up an opportunity of poking fun at his new associate:

With no appetite for the giant Mutton Chop cooling in front of him, Mason mopishly now wraps it and stows it in his Coat. Looking up, he notes Dixon, mouth cheerfully stuff’d, beaming too tolerantly for his Comfort.
“No, —not for me, —did you think I was taking it for myself?—‘tis for the Learnèd Dog, rather, —like, I don’t know, perhaps a Bouquet sent to an Actress one admires, a nice Chop can never go too far off the Mark.”
Starting a beat late, “Why aye,’tis a . . . great World, for fair . . .? And Practices vary, and one Man may certainly not comment upon—”
“What . . . are you saying?”
Dixon ingenuously waving his Joint [= mutton-chop], eyes round as Pistoles. “No Offense, Sir.” Rolling his Eyes the Moment Mason switches his Stare away, then back a bit late to catch them so much as off-Center. (19)

  • 1 Dixon’s Northern accent is transliterated throughout the novel, notably with its characteristically (...)

5“Beat” is echoed by “bit,” which provides the reader/listener with a key: the first, a phonetic transcription (with the long, closed [i:] in “beat”) lets us hear Dixon’s Northern accent (he is from County Durham, in the North-East of England), which shows in his “Why aye”, a typically Geordie interjection as well as other idiosyncrasies in his speech, the object of Mason’s jest (15).1 Reading Pynchon does imply close listening, especially in the dialogues, and the writer himself calls attention to voices in his self-reflexive introduction to Slow Learner: “Equally embarrassing is the case of Bad Ear to be found marring much of the dialogue [in ‘The Small Rain’]. My mistake being to try to show off my ear before I had one” (4–5).

  • 2 Here is how his Sheherazade-like predicament is evoked: “ . . . [the young ones] gather for another (...)

6On the same page in Mason & Dixon, the Learnèd English Dog’s song is the first in a long series of such musical interludes; it may be read with a clearly meta-fictional lens, given the nature of the singer: the Learnèd Dog is yet another figure of Scheherazade, like the Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke who must keep his nephews amused with his tales or face eviction from his sister’s home.2 This is explicitly brought up by the Dog himself a few pages later: “We go on as tail-wagging Scheherazades,  . . . nightly delaying the Blades of our Masters by telling back to them tales of their humanity” (22). Here is his song’s final stanza:

I quote enough of the Classickal Stuff
To set your Ears a-throb,
Work logarith-mick Versèd Sines
Withal, within me Nob,
—Only nothing Ministerial, please,
Or I’m apt to lose m’Job,
As, the Learnèd English Dog, to-ni-ight! (19)

7The last word is clearly segmented and augmented to the rhythm of musical comedy, and as for the dog’s quoting “classical stuff,” this can be heard as a jesting meta-fictional reflection on the novel itself. The same goes for the pun in “Work logarith-mick versèd Sines” (rhythmical signs forming verse). Any religious or ethical (“Ministerial”) implications are, of course, off-handedly dismissed.

8Much later in the novel, a comment on another song (a sailors’ one) stresses the primacy of rhythm and harmony over lyrics: “By the last four Bars, they are facing and gazing at one another with an Affection having to do not so much with the Lyric, as with keeping the Harmony, and finishing together” (284). Harmony is a matter of cadence as much as of melody, and keeping in time with your fellow singer is of utmost importance. This timeliness, this attention to rhythm, is what prompts the narrator (and/or Dixon, the focus of the narrative at this point), to comment on the missed “beat”—the “bit late.”

9With “beat” instead of “bit,” the initial comment sets up a reference to the steady pace, the expected rhythm of perfunctory conversation. Dixon’s brief hesitation breaks the course of his exchange with Mason and introduces a brief silent gap, which triggers off a series of hesitations indicated by suspension marks or dashes. When “beat” is echoed by “bit,” a few lines down, it is Mason this time who is too late, by a fraction, to catch Dixon’s ironic eye movement: “a bit late to catch [his eyes] so much as off-center” (19).

10Dixon’s eyes go “off-center” for a split second—a non-alignment that interrupts the visual thread parallel to the vocal continuity of their interaction. The “beat/bit late” thus refers both to temporal and spatial hesitation, while on an overall thematic level the novel chronicles the difficulties in keeping other lines together: in the first part, the line formed by the Earth, Venus, and the Sun, a rare occurrence whose measurement offers an opportunity to gauge the distance separating the Earth from the Sun; and then of course the horizontal line Mason and Dixon are to inscribe on the map of America. Later in the novel, a number of references to measurement and accuracy further the list of determinations; in the following quote, “time” and its regular beat are interestingly associated to the physical determinations of gravity and light, all given a transcendental import by William Emerson, Dixon’s old teacher: “Gravity, the Pulse of Time, the finite speed of Light present themselves to him as aspects of God’s character” (220). Yet the laws of physics, as always in Pynchon’s fiction, are often challenged, be it on a large scale or in the course of minute events, as in this seemingly incidental comparison: “ . . . much like an Ink-Drop about to fall from the Quill of a forgetful Scribbler, —sidewise, of course, —” (96). One cannot fail to read this deviation of the ink-drop as yet another metaphysical wink.

11“A beat late”—the word’s polysemic potentialities are further exploited in a scene which stages Tenebrae—a sort of negative counterpart to Ulysses’ Penelope—openly flirting and firmly standing her ground as well as keeping time in a musical debate rife with sexual innuendoes: “then you should be wearing this ‘round your head,” suggests Brae quite upon her “Beat,” “if you wish to work as a Gipsy” (265). Upon her beat may be read here both in a temporal (taking her turn in the conversation) or in a spatial sense (she is on her beat like a hooker fending for her street-corner, or a policewoman on duty).

12What I would like to suggest is that this incidental occurrence of the conjunction of the two modes, the temporal and the spatial, right at the onset of the novel in this first conversation between Mason and Dixon, has a programmatic function; this slight displacement, out of time and out of line, resonates throughout the novel.

“Whilst the Wife Minds the Beats of the Clock”

  • 3 “Pray, my dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock?— Good G.—! cried my fath (...)

13In chapter 10, “all day long that fifth and sixth of June,” 1761, Mason and Dixon are among the many observers, both learned and profane, of the exceptional Transit of Venus (97). One paragraph made up of two long sentences evokes the coming together of the whole world in this act of observation of the Goddess of Love, with an obvious reference to the incipit of Tristram Shandy (“whilst the wife minds the Beats of the Clock”)3 which fuses the moment of conception with the origins of the universe: “the moment of first contact produces a collective brain-pang” (Big Bang/birth pangs).

14Just as in Tristram Shandy’s grotesque evocation of the moment of his own conception, two kinds of time are opposed in this paragraph: cosmic time, which unites a variety of people, places, positions, and instruments into a perfectly ordered whole (the two long, periodic sentences that compose this paragraph); and clock time, a mechanical, man-made rhythm intended to measure time (this rhythm of the clock is evoked through the strict repetition of simple metrical units in these long periods). Such attempts at measuring/keeping time are vain, as time (cosmic as well as human time) escapes measurement in spite of the frantic attempts of the observers during the transit: “Quick! Someone, secure the Time, —” (96). In the first sentence of this evocation of collective observation during the Transit of Venus, one hears quite perceptible metrical schemes (tetrameters), which become visible through a disposition into lines, a highlighting of the metrical stresses and a marking of caesuras (/):

  • 4 These last two lines may also be rendered with a strictly iambic pattern: Observers lie, they sit, (...)

In Latin, / in Chinese, / in Polish, / in Silence, —/
Upon Roof-tops/ and Mountain Peaks/
 . . . close together/ in the naked sunlight/
Whilst the Wife/ minds the Beats/ of the Clock, —/thro’ Gregorians and Newtonians, / achromatick and rainbow-smear’d, /
brand-new reflectors/ made for the occasion, /and ancient refractors/ of preposterous focal lengths, —/ . . . (note the mimetic lengthening of this second unit)
Observers lie, / they sit, / they kneel, —/and witness/ something/ in the Sky. (97)4

  • 5 “There are the very regular pre-established accent and measure of blank verse, and there are the ve (...)

15Here, as in jesting response to Frost’s ideal distinction between the natural rhythm of speech and the metrical constraints of poetic diction5, the easy flow of narrative prose is combined with traditional metrical schemes, thus keeping time with the “sustaining ground rhythm” Frost valued as a counterpoint to the irregularities of speech. The reference to Sterne ironically recalls the moment of conception, the moment when human life is first set onto a course that will inevitably lead to death. Here this moment is harmoniously blended in with the rhythm of the cosmos, through the satisfying cadences of familiar meter.

16One of the most obviously metrical segments in this sentence reads as follows: “In Latin, in Chinese, in Polish, in Silence.” The sequence of unstressed and stressed syllables may be represented as two units of equal length: - / - - - / * - / - - / -. Two almost identical units, save for the final trochee (silence) which coincides with a semantic zeugma: silence closes the list of languages, which may have gone on for much longer but is closed by this final, falling rhythmical oddity. A strange silence, which reappears soon after in an oxymoronic allusion to another language, that of the slaves who are witnessing the “unaccustom’d Bustle” in their masters’ house as the crucial moment approaches: “the slaves speak inaudibly” (97). This highly significant silence—the silence of the dark continent—echoes the fleeting moment of silence that broke the flow in the early conversation between Mason and Dixon.

17This pleasing, lulling harmony recedes in the second sentence, which is not sustained by the same kind of pulsation. Instead, it follows a scheme of gradually decreasing syntactical units, down to the final question which narrows the initially universal scope down to the scale of the individual subject—the subject asking the ultimate question of his whereabouts:

among those attending Snouts earth-wide, the moment of first contact produces a collective brain-pang, as if for something lost and already unclaimable, —after the years of preparation, the long and at best queasy voyaging, the Station arriv’d at, the Latitude and Longitude well secur’d, —the Week of the Transit, —the Day, —the Hour, — the Minute, —and at last ‘tis, “Eh, where am I?” (97)

18The narrative also gradually shifts from the omniscient point of view to that of Dixon, to finally catch up with his interior speech, or so one may presume as the discrete return of markers of his distinctive orality suggest: “‘tis, Eh?”. The final question is, once again, also of metafictional import as the reader is quite likely to ask it at this point, out of breath as it were at the close of this long-winded paragraph. “Where am I?” The abrupt ending also foregrounds the question of place, whereas time is of the essence throughout the scene.

19The satisfaction derived from the lulling rhythm may be a foil: the countdown to the moment of the Transit is interrupted by a question regarding the place of the subject, perhaps one way of resisting the teleological drive of the narrative, which points both backward to the birth of the universe (“brain-pang”/Big Bang) and forward to “the limits to human grandeur impos’d by Mortality” (97). The deadly teleological movement of History—the history of the universe as well as the life of every human subject—and the linear unfolding of the story are typically allegorized through the ticking of the clock and inscribed in the cadence of the narrative. These two determining forces—History and story—are challenged at times, as we saw, by slight shifts or imperfections, on the structural as well as on the semantic levels. In “America,” the second part of the novel which stages the progress of Mason and Dixon across the American continent, determinations are also allegorized and similarly off-set.

“A Vegetable with a Pulse-Beat!”: Talking Clocks and Other Categorical Transgressions

20In chapter 32, an extraordinary watch entrusted into Dixon’s hands by Emerson, his old professor, is the object of much wonder and attention, until it is ingested, in a purported attempt to hide it from enemies, by a mysterious unnamed R.C. (in fact unable to resist its appeal). This watch, or “Chronometer”, seems to operate against the laws of physics as it never needs winding, in the “Perpetual-Motion” so ardently sought after yet never observed in our physical world. It also challenges the laws of economics sententiously recalled by Emerson in Latin (“Prandium gratis non est”—317—an anachronistic translation of the very American phrase “There ain’t no such thing as free lunch.”). The laws of nature are soon to be challenged by the watch, which breaks down categories by turning animate, first vegetable, then animal; it morphs into an appetizing talking “beat”, a root of temptation that will finally be gulped down. This hybrid object combines the pulses of the mechanical and the organic as it begins its metamorphosis under Dixon’s fascinated gaze:

“Vegetables don’t tick,” the Professor gently reminds Dixon.
“Why aye, those that be only vegetables don’t. We speak now of a higher form of life, —a Vegetable with a Pulse-beat!” (321)

21Its complex, contrapunctal ticking stirs its holder into singing (“ticking away briskly as ever, —and the counter-rhythms of the Remontoire falling precisely as the Steps of a Spanish dancer” 319). “Yes amusing little rhythm device,” Mason says after having sung to its beat, “watch to his ear.” It is a hybrid kind of instrument on all counts, as it measures space as well as time—a surveyor ruefully remarks once it has been swallowed down: “That’s 60 years of Longitude down there” (323). It gradually pervades the narrative, from the anecdotal mention in earlier chapters of two watches chatting along on a ship and a Dutch grandfather clock, to become the sole focus of this chapter.

22Other such transgressions of categorical boundaries are operated in the novel, in keeping with a long-established Pynchonian trope, the blending of animate and inanimate entities (of which Gravity’s Rainbow Byron the Bulb is a major example). See for instance the “Krees, or Malay Dagger” (70) and its own metamorphosis:

A man in a Sarong cooks as though possessed, running about with a Krees to gaze too long at whose bright wavy edge might put a Man’s Thumbs a-prickle, as his Mind in a Bind, —poking embers precisely into huge gusts of flame, stirring the contents of various pots, peeling Garlick, deveining and Butterflying shrimps, slicing vegetables, boning and filletting fish, performing perhaps a dozen such Tasks more or less simultaneously with this single Implement, whilst . . . [children] tend the babies in the dark, watching the progress of the Krees, which they have seen fly, heard sing, and in the presence of a pure well, felt a-tremble, there being an odd number of waves to its Blade, signifying Alliance with the correct Forces. (83–84)

23The blade turns into a butterfly, as though contaminated by its own performance of “Butterflying” shrimps (i.e. cutting them up lengthwise into two, not quite separate halves, thereby giving them the appearance of butterflies). A butterfly (it flies), a bird (it sings)—it vibrates ( “a-tremble”) in harmony with elemental forces; is it attracted to them, as seems to suggest its haunting presence in Mason’s dreams “of some Presence with a Krees or Malay Dagger, of indistinct speech, yet clear intention to Dowse for the Well-Spring of Mason’s Blood” (70)?

24Why should the forces that govern bodies of water such as wells or springs be “correct”? Could it be that the vibrations they impulse are precisely—correctly—those of the boundless ocean each and every drop ultimately merges into? The ocean has its own, complex rhythm (also characterized by “an odd number of waves”—odd meaning both uneven and strange), which disrupts mechanical time:

 . . . Emerson expressed himself clearly and pessimistickally as to any Hopes for building a Watch that might ever keep time at Sea, whose “ten thousands irregular motions” would defeat the regularity of any Time-Piece . . . (318)

“The Rock of the Oceans”: the Beat of America

25In-between mechanically-kept time and elemental pulse, Pynchon’s prose often runs off into tangents, steering clear of binary oppositions, just as it challenges the very distinction between norms and deviations therefrom. It opens up spaces, brings in extra beats or suspends the regularity of a pulse. Its hesitations bring about slight displacements or confusions: perceptually, between vision and hearing; conceptually, between space and time. Mason & Dixon lets forth the odd beat of a different, off-the-record story about America—not as a continent to conquer or map but as the source of new, hybrid rhythms. The novel spans a gamut of possibilities after stating, in its opening pages, the elusive nature of time and space: “for the Times are as impossible to calculate, this Advent, as the Distance to a Star” (6). It ends on the vision of a measureless sky over the American wilderness, where “the Stars are so close you won’t need a Telescope” (773). As Emerson stated to Dixon concerning his strange time-keeping device: “Time is the Space that may not be seen” (326).

26Right at the onset of the novel’s central and longest part, entitled “America”, Reverend Cherrycoke and his audience (three young cousins in particular among them) engage in a debate on the new musical forms emerging in these revolutionary times in America:

“These late ten American Years were but Slaughter of this sort and that. Now begins the true Inversion of the World.”
“Don’t know, Coz. Much of your Faith seems invested in this novel Musick, —”
“Where better?” asks young Ethelmer confidently. “Is it not the very Rhythm of the Engines, the Clamor of the Mills, the Rock of the Oceans, the Roll of the Drums in the Night, why if one wish’d to give it a Name, —”
“Surf Music!” DePugh cries.
“Percussion,” Brae, sweet as a Pie. (264)

27This lyrical—and somewhat anachronistic as well as Whitmanian— evocation of various forms of popular American music raises echoes of the sounds Mason and Dixon perceive from their ship as it nears the coast of the New World:

From the shore they will hear Milkmaids quarreling and cowbells a-clank, and dogs, and Babies old and new, —Hammers upon Nails, Wives upon Husbands, the ring of Pot-lids, the jingling of Draft-chains, a rifle-shot from a stretch of Woods, lengthily crackling tree to tree and across the water . . . An animal will come to a Headland, and stand, regarding them with narrowly set Eyes that glow a Moment. Its Face slowly turning as they pass. America. (258)

28Is the full stop before “America” just a hesitation? A beat too late for the boat to sail on (as they pass America)? Had it not been not for this extra beat, the continent might not have been scarred by History, which might have taken a different course. Mason & Dixon is the story of a line designed to trace the boundaries of a new America—a free America? The question of freedom is a core one in a novel which foregrounds major historical issues such as European imperialism, slavery and the genocide of Native Americans. The Line is one of the “geometrick Scars” (258) that mark the progress of History’s most oppressive forces. As has hopefully been shown through this examination of a few of the novel’s more marginal episodes, the narrative constantly resists these determinations through a number of persistent oddities, not the least being its peculiar rhythmical signature.


Works Cited

Preminger, Alex, Terry V. F. Brogan & Frank J. Warnke (eds.). The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Pynchon, Thomas. Slow Learner. Boston: Little, Brown, 1984.

Pynchon, Thomas. Mason & Dixon. London: Jonathan Cape, 1997.

Scully, James (ed.). Modern Poets on Modern Poetry. London & Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1965.

Sterne, Lawrence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. 1759–67. London: Penguin Books, 1997.


1 Dixon’s Northern accent is transliterated throughout the novel, notably with its characteristically closed vowels (tho’/though, eeh/hey), and the final glottal stop in tha’/that.

2 Here is how his Sheherazade-like predicament is evoked: “ . . . [the young ones] gather for another tale from their far-travel’d Uncle, the Rev. Wicks Cherrycoke, who arriv’d here back in October . . . and has linger’d as a Guest in the Home of his sister Elizabeth, the Wife, for many years, of Mr. J. Wade LeSpark, a respected Merchant active in Town Affairs, whilst in his home yet Sultan enough to convey to the Revd, tho’ without ever so stipulating, that, for as long as he can keep the children amus’d, he may remain, —too much evidence of Juvenile Rampage at the wrong moment, however, and Boppo! ‘twill be Out the Door with him, where waits the Winter’s Block and Blade” (M & D 6–7; italics mine).

3 “Pray, my dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock?— Good G.—! cried my father, making an exclamation, but taking care to moderate his voice at the same time, —Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question?” (Sterne 1).

4 These last two lines may also be rendered with a strictly iambic pattern: Observers lie, they sit, they kneel, —and witness something in the Sky.

5 “There are the very regular pre-established accent and measure of blank verse, and there are the very irregular accent and measure of speaking intonation.” (Scully, Modern Poets on Modern Poetry 48). What the editor of the volume calls “a traditional meter, a sustaining ground rhythm” is not exclusively to be heard in poetic texts stricto sensu. The definition of rhythm in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Preminger, Brogan & Warke 1066–1069) is established on the very broad basis of four criteria—regularity, variation, grouping, hierarchy—to be observed in poetry as well as in a much greater variety of texts.

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