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You don't just name a character Alan Clay by accident. This is a name that is a) designed to be yawn-inspiringly boring and b) smack us silly with symbolism.
What kind of qualities do you think of when you hear the word "clay"? We're guessing malleability is way, way up there on the list. After all, clay is pretty much universally known as the stuff you turn to when you want to make a bowl, or a vase, or a saucer, or the kind of poorly-glazed kitty-cat statue we all made in first grade. Clay's #1 quality—the thing that makes it so clay-y—is that it can be shaped.
And Alan Clay's #1 quality is exactly the same. This is a guy who's shaped by his circumstances.
Eggers creates Alan Clay as an Everyman for the 2000s. He's affected by economic forces that took the U.S.—and the world—on a frightening rollercoaster ride through a shift that moved us away from the production of Things We Understand to Innovations Beyond Comprehension.
For Alan, these enormous changes meant it was time to adapt or die. He seems to do okay for a while—until the rug is pulled right out from under his feet. Like so many, Alan finds that his brutal efficiency and desire to avoid confrontation lands him out on the street: no job, no relevant skill set, and not much money.
Alan tries to process the events of the last decade and figure out exactly where he went wrong. He finds that he has to point the finger at himself more than he would like, for his questionable enabling of corporate greed:
He had not planned well. He had not had courage when he needed it.
His decisions had been short sighted.
The decisions of his peers had been short sighted.
These decisions had been foolish and expedient. (I.6-9)
But if Alan is an Everyman, he can't shoulder all the blame for global economic collapse. Like Willy Loman before him, Alan is just one salesman out of millions. He's not exceptional in any way. The experience of being crushed by forces he may or may not have helped to create is about as common as dirt.
Or, hey: as common as clay.
Alan loses interest in his friend Charlie Fallon because Charlie gets obsessed with Big Ideas, like "Grandeur" and "Oneness." Alan can't stomach such things as philosophical ideals because he's a pragmatic guy (remember that he quit college to become a Fuller Brush salesman—this guy didn't spend his late teens staring at the stars and asking "What does it all mean, man?").
But Alan doesn't recognize that he's a sucker for grandeur, too. Nothing revs his engines like "Great Vision"—as long as it has to do with economic development.
Check out his enthusiasm for the propaganda show at KAEC:
Alan had always been a sucker for a model like this, vision like this, a thirty-year plan, something rising from nothing—though his own experiences with bringing such a vision to fruition had not been so successful. (VI.26.45)
He can't help losing all his skepticism and rational concern in the face of such brazen optimism. The desert's trying to swallow the underdeveloped city? Only a person without Vision would focus on that.
This unwarranted optimism—the kind that propels him to support terrible manufacturing models at Schwinn—is the problem. While there are hints all along that things at KAEC aren't as favorable as they seem, Alan chooses to ignore the warning signs. Lack of commitment from King Abdullah? Mere rumors. The Chinese buying up Saudi oil? Just another day in the global economy.
Alan's major Achilles' heel is his need to be in on the ground floor of something audacious and wildly successful. He wants his life to have purpose and meaning on an epic scale, to create a legacy that will inspire stories about him beyond the bounds of his own life.
But when those efforts fail, Alan's eagerness to begin again nearly results in the killing of a Saudi shepherd boy:
Because he hadn't done anything, for years or ever, he had almost done this. Because he had no stories of valor, he had almost done this. Because the efforts he'd made toward creating something like a legacy had failed, he had almost done this. (XXVIII.152.279)
Alan knows that his losses over the year have made him desperate for success—but he insists on seeking that elusive high in all the same places that failed him the last time. We totally get his desire to be somebody. Alan just can't settle on who.
As much as Alan hates the meanderings of his old friend Charlie, his personal crises turn him into quite the contemplation addict. Dude does a lot of metaphorical beard-stroking.
Faced with the harshness and isolation of the Saudi Arabian landscape, Alan can't help but turn inward and face his worst moments and actions. Of course, he does what he can to avoid the soul-searching (blaming his neck cyst, performing some pretty nasty frontier surgery on his neck cyst), but that's to be expected.
When he gets down to it, we see that despite his quirks, Alan faces the same existential question that most adults do: what is the meaning of life?
There had to be some reason Alan was here […] Very often the meaning was obscured. Very often it required some digging. The meaning of his life was an elusive seam of water hundreds of feet below the surface, and he would periodically drop a bucket down the well, fit it, bring it up and drink from it. But this did not sustain him for long. (VII.1.59)
He finds—as most of us do—that his answers just aren't adequate. In the face of all his flaws, failures, and disappoints, one moment of comprehension is just. Not. Enough.
His desire for purpose at any cost and his lack of caution in the face of opportunity makes perfect sense, then. Without the hope of the Next Big Thing, Alan might as well not bother getting up in the morning.
Does this make him a thrill junkie? Nope, not really. We think it just makes him human.