Critical Context

West’s first novel, A Quality of Mercy, is markedly different from his later works. Its plot line and characterization are traditional, though it employs the modernist technique of fragmentation, by interpolating chapters of Camden’s past between those of the novel’s present action.

Reading backward, however, one can see themes of his later fiction contained here in embryo. The portrayal of an irrational universe, inhumane and often terrifying, of characters whose eccentric behavior transcends ordinary insanity, is also reflected in his later Alley Jaggers trilogy, as well as his novels of the 1980’s, The Very Rich Hours of Count Von Stauffenberg (1980) and Rat Man of Paris (1986).

The cleverly turned sentences and brilliant wordplay seen here metamorphose into the complex intellectual schemes and patterns of these later novels. Because of these novels, in the 1960’s and 1970’s West came to be linked with a group of experimental American novelists, such as John Barth and William Gass, and particularly with experimental Latin American novelists, such as Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa.