What had seemed like utter failure from the road into the city seemed, now, entirely on target. The place was bustling, workers everywhere in their primary-colored jumpsuits, the place getting built. Any investors seeing the project from this vantage point would be convinced that it was being completed with great taste and with what Alan, at least, saw as admirable speed. (VI.74.52)
Our hero can't help but feel optimistic when he sees KAEC from the upper floors of the Black Box. But is it a snapshot of reality, even for an adventurous person—or just another piece of delusion meant to lure the eager or greedy? Alan's desire to be a part of something visionary influences everything he seems around him, and keeps him from understanding the precarious nature of the investment in KAEC.
Someone, Kit or the digitizers, had arranged them all more or less chronologically, and now he could, and too often did, scan through the thousand pictures, a record of his life, in minutes. All he had to do was keep his finger on the leftward arrow. It was too easy. It was not good. It kept him in a dangerous stasis of nostalgia and regret and horror. (XV.30.104)
Sometimes, exploration can be a bad thing, especially when excavating those internal layers that might hide unpleasant things like heartache, regret, and past failures. Technology has a way of putting such painful journeys right at our fingertips, as Alan learns when he scrolls through his digitized pictures. And just as Facebook sometimes gobsmacks us with memories we'd rather forget, Alan gets dragged down by this "gift" from Kit. When exploration sends you backward, it might not be a good thing.
He had a distant inkling that he would regret this. He struck a match and got as close to sterilizing the blade as he could. Then he took the knife and slowly twisted it into the growth. There was pain, but only the kind normally associated with puncturing the skin. When he had reached the growth, and in seconds he knew he had, there was nothing extraordinary. Just pain. Standard, fascinating pain. (XV.39.106)
Ok, here's a life tip: don't use a steak knife to do exploratory surgery. We don't care how much you think you've sterilized the blade. Alan can't help himself here because: a) he's drunk; b) he just has to know what's going wrong with his body.
It's his hope/fear that this lump really is a festering disease. It would explain everything bad that has happened to him since it began to grow. Unfortunately, this probing doesn't give Alan what he wants. He'll just have to accept the fact that his problems are often of his own making.
In the shower he washed his hair and body and thought, Who is this man who could miss the shuttle not once but twice in three days? Who is this man who could again wake at 10 a.m., having no doubt missed calls to his cellphone, knocks on the door? (XVI.4.113)
Alan's experiences in Saudi Arabia bring him plenty of out-of-body moments like this one, where he questions who he is and what he's becoming. As he attempts to figure out his identity, Alan finds himself doing some seriously unexpected and bizarre things.
There was nothing as good as this, being there at the beginning of something. When the city was another Dubai, another Abu Dhabi or Nairobi, he could say he'd walked the foundation of the buildings, he'd laid the groundwork for all the IT in the whole damned place. (XVII.56.133)
Alan, like most people, loves the idea of being part of Something Big. He's an adventurer at heart, wanting to be part of new schemes and big gambles that may pay out in the future. When he finds the deep foundation of a new building at KAEC, he can't help but trespass and go exploring. Unfortunately, it ends with Alan ranting about all the terrible things that have happened to bring him there—not something he bargained for when he optimistically descended into the earthworks.
He'd owned cowries before, and probably still had five or six in a box somewhere. But he'd never found one in the water like this. It was perfect, too—he turned it over and over and found it flawless, unscratched. Its teeth were smooth, variegated. There was no reason for it to be this beautiful (XX.24.168)
We learn some pretty surprising things about Alan in this book. Here's one of them: he was somewhat of a shell expert in his youth. He'd collected and identified them, knew their value and rarity. It's a reflection of his love of wandering and his need to find reason and purpose in the world around him.
"You should do it," she said.
And that's all he needed. He decided to go further, though, and found a rowboat on the boat, and put it on the river and himself in it. He figured he would row deeper into the river, and jump from the boat into the deep. (XX.58-59.177)
Ruby dares Alan to dive into the alligator-infested waters around their riverboat. Of course, Alan has to go one better and take a leaky boat far away from the riverboat, increasing his chances of being digested by a hungry critter. It's an important illustration of Alan's impulsiveness and lack of forethought, something that gets him into major trouble in both his personal and professional lives.
But it's also something that we empathize with and admire. To dare such crazy things is endearing, and makes us hope that the gators of the world won't swallow him up.
He felt like he would pass out. But he stood, and he pushed the needle further. He knew he needed an inch at least. He pushed and twisted and the pain, miraculously, diminished […] He removed the needle and stared at it, expecting something grey or green, the colors of debasement. But he only saw red, viscous red, as the blood poured down his back in tendrils as it had before. (XXIV.54-55.202-203).
This is self-exploration of the most graphic kind. Not satisfied with his first steak knife exploration (or with Dr. Hakem's opinion), Alan has another go at his lump with a needle. We know that Alan likes to figure things out for himself and that he likes to work with his hands, so these little self-surgeries are not a surprise.
But it makes us wonder: what is he trying to achieve? Does he really want to reassure himself that the lump is no biggie? Or is he perhaps trying to punish himself for something? We don't have an exact answer, but we do know that Alan's version of self-exploration will always be excruciating.
They spent the next few hours driving lazily through the valleys, up and down the terrible roads. Along the way they passed a succession of improbable rock formations. Two-story stones that had been half hollowed, sitting like empty helmets. They drove to the upper ridge of the valley of Yousef's father and looked down on the village. (XXVII.74.263)
Alan gets down to some hardcore exploration of the Saudi Arabian desert with Yousef and Salem. The landscape is unlike anything Alan's ever seen; it sends him into some pretty heady contemplations of life, the universe and everything. He's satisfying his desire to be part of something very different from anything he's ever known, but the experience is also demanding a lot from his philosophical stores.
The sea outside was a raucous blue, dusted with tiny whitecaps. Across the room, a painting of what appeared to be the Swiss Alps.
"Strange in a beach house," Alan noted.
"Everyone wants to be somewhere else," she said. (XXXII.102-104.311)
Alan discovers the odd little Swiss Alps picture when he's on a "date" with Zahra Hakem at her brother's beach house. He's trying to wrap his head around all the cultural contradictions of Saudi Arabia as well as the diversity of Zahra's educational and family life.
Alan's really not able to process it all, but Zahra sums it all up for him: we all have the need for something other, something better. Alan doesn't recognize it here, but this also describes him to a T: he's always searching for the next big thing, the next exciting opportunity.