It's the black humor that really does it. The jokes! the man wailed. I used to hear them in France, England, Spain. And Russia! People grumbling about their hopeless governments, about the elemental and irreversible dysfunction of their countries. And Italy! The sourness, the presumption of decline. It was everywhere and now it's with us, too. That dark sarcasm. It's the killer, I swear to God. That's the sign you're down and can't get up! (II.63.14-15)
Alan gets an earful from another failed businessman who shares a plane ride with him. It appears that he's found a useful gauge to measure international despair: dark humor. It's not just Alan who feels the pinch. The global financial collapse has led to a world populated by ruined people who feel they will never claw their way back. Humor, the man argues, is a last resource. And now we know why Alan loves to tell jokes—and why his ex hated that.
His body was scarred everywhere from the accidents of his last five years. He'd become clumsy. He was hitting his head on cabinets. Crushing his hands in car doors. He'd fallen in an icy parking lot and walked for months like a man made of wood. He was no longer elegant. (XI.21.73)
Alan wants to believe that his clumsiness has to do with the lump growing on his neck. If he's super lucky, it will be malignant and the source of all his failures (and of his ultimate release). But really, Alan is suffering from the degradation that comes with age. It's a hard day for him when he has to admit that his one shining physical quality—his "elegance"—has left him. And it's totally impossible for him to accept that this isn't a personal insult from the universe. It just is what it is.
The [BP] leak devastated him. It had been unstoppable for weeks, and all he and everyone else could do was watch the plumes of oil shooting into the ocean. Alan favored every extreme method of putting an end to it. (XII.16.81)
If you've ever fallen into despair about a natural or manmade disaster on the news, you'll know exactly the angst that Alan feels when he learns about the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It's excruciating for him to watch.
Alan's sense of personal responsibility for such screw ups (like this gigantic goat rodeo of a clean up effort) is likely a reflection of his embarrassment over his short-sighted decisions in life. If only he could actually sponge up the messes he's made, Alan might have a greater sense of hope.
And so he'd moved up quickly at Schwinn, too, from retail sales in downstate Illinois to the regional sales office, to a place at the table with the execs in Chicago, planning strategy and expansion. And then the union-busting. Then Hungary, Taiwan, China, divorce, this. (XII.34.83)
When Alan takes a ride on Lady Fortune's wheel, he winds up crushed right at the bottom—like many a good person before him. But since it's been a long ride down, it's difficult for him to see when this rollercoaster will bottom out. Alan's constantly reminded of how good things were for a while, and tormented with the thought they he may never get back to that place again.
Alan chose not to tell Yousef that he had been generally unskilled in matters of love, and was now celibate and alone. That he had not touched a woman in any meaningful way for years now, too many years. He chose to allow Yousef to believe that he was now and always a successful man reveling in the sex-drenched cities of America. (XVI.139.126)
Alan likes Yousef, partially because Yousef likes Alan. He doesn't want Yousef to find out about his failures (and certainly not his failed love life). That's fair enough.
But for Alan, the lack of success in his sex life is even more inexplicable than his professional failures. His internal deadness certainly contributes to this, as does his failed marriage to Ruby. Alan doesn't try to suss it out too much. In this case, it's best for his friend to believe all the stereotypes he might have about American businessmen. You know, to lighten up the mind-numbing sadness of it all.
"I think you're absolutely hollow."
"I told you that myself."
"Maybe not hollow. More like defeated."
"What made you that way? There's no light in there." She leaned over to tap his temple with her finger. (XXII.96-100.188)
Alan finds himself in a truly awkward situation with Hanne: naked, in her bathtub. This might be a dream situation for some men, but Alan hasn't really been moved sexually in years. It's part of his whole personal failure/internal deadness situation. But Hanne has clearly never seen anything like it before, and really wonders what's going on. Is it her? No, Hanne: You're not responsible for the downward spiral that is Alan's life.
He felt like he could fly up to the third floor, but instead he took the elevator. Once inside, as if it were some kind of Kryptonite chamber, he returned to his previous self, the power draining from him. (XXIV.22.207)
Alan has to battle a lot of demons as he tries to function on the job for Reliant. He's on an emotional rollercoaster most of the time: invincible one moment, completely devastated the next. His once-victorious sales career pushes up against the failures of the past ten years or so, making his mood uncertain and unstable. At this moment, he's having all the feels. The Alan of the past surges forward to take charge, but it's really the Alan of the present who has to deal.
The mood among the young people, at least for a moment or two, was something like despair. Alan had the feeling, looking at Brad's deflation, that this was among the bigger disappointments of his life. (XXV.14)
When King Abdullah snubs the folks at KAEC by not showing, it's almost too much for Alan and his team. The adrenaline has nowhere to go. But we can't help laughing a little bit at the young crew: this is the worst disappointment that they've ever had. Alan knows that they just need another ten or twenty years to learn better, but for now, the no-show of the King nearly crushes them all—at least for the moment.
Alan hadn't built the wall to the town's specifications, hadn't worked with a licensed contractor, and so the wall had to be destroyed. They made him pay a pair of men to jackhammer his wall, his garden, until it was rubble. They trampled his vegetables, everything ground into the soil. The plants were dead. (XXVI.196.253)
Alan's spontaneous wall-building episode shows us the kind of guy he really is—impulsive, optimistic, no foresight. He gets carried away with prospects without thinking too much of the practical consequences.
On the other hand, Eggers wants us to see the bureaucracy that stifles creativity and destroys honest and good things like gardens. Is there any reason for them to do this? Not really, and that's why the episode stays with Alan, who counts it as another small loss in his attempt to really build a legacy for himself.
Yousef had been lighthearted during his questions, but there was something very serious and sad under his smile, and Alan knew what it was. It was the knowledge that there would be no fighting, and there would be no struggle, no stand taken, and that the two of them, because they were not lacking materially, because despite injustices in their countries they were the recipients of preposterous bounty, would likely do nothing. (XXVIII.130.276)
Eggers' book is struck through with desperation created by a Universe (and the people in it) just not caring. Yousef and his friend Salem comment on the emptiness that most young Saudis feel because there's a lack of opportunity for them. They have no purpose in life, and no prospect of a purpose. But worse than that, there's a kind of deadness in them that paralyzes them. Alan feels that same deadness—and none of them really have the internal combustion to break through it all.