The questions from those wise-ass students masquerading as earnest young go-getters. Why didn't you anticipate the popularity of BMX bikes? And what about mountain bikes? You got murdered there. Was it a mistake to have shopped out all the labor to China? This coming from kids whose experience with business was summer lawn-cutting. (VI.57.49)
Alan's response to the cheeky MBA students feels hostile, but it's clear that he doesn't have an answer for them—or himself. While he tries to make himself feel better by saying that "hindsight is 20/20," Alan really understands that he's made some dodgy choices in his professional life. And while it's true that the young students are sniping from a place of safety, Alan admits in other places that he has done major damage to himself and the economy with his actions.
"Do you ever feel like you might have done it differently?"
"Well, whatever part you might have played. Might it have worked out differently? Was there a way Schwinn might have survived?"
Might have. Might have. Alan parsed the words. He would bludgeon the man if he used these words again. (VI. 63-66.51)
In this conversation with Karim, Alan runs up against a familiar question: what was your part in all of this? He wants to beat Karim because he hits a very tender spot. Alan finds himself in a bad situation here. So much of what happened in his past professional life was out of his control—but not all of it. This exchange with the perfect-looking young Karim brings that personal responsibility before his eyes yet again.
Alan drove on.
But Charlie stepped in deeper. He did it slowly. Other neighbors saw him up to his knees, his waist. No one said anything. (VIII.3-4.59)
Alan feels a lot of guilt over his friend Charlie's death. And rightly so, as he simply drove past the man who would drown himself shortly after. As in so many other cases, Alan just can't read the signs. He doesn't understand how dire the situation is until after his opportunity to act has past.
Later the police and firemen said that due to budget cuts, they hadn't been trained for rescues like this. If they went in after him, it would have been a big liability issue. (VIII.6.60)
Eggers has this way of laying blame and then complicating the story to the point that the truth of the situation feels blurred. Just when we're all set to blame Alan for his blindness to Charlie Fallon's distress, Eggers drops this bomb: Charlie died in front of a whole cadre of people. Economic instability keeps them from saving him at the last moment.
It's Eggers way of saying that most tragedies and disappointments happen for many reasons—but it's also a backhanded way of laying guilt at Alan's feet, since he's one of the agents of economic collapse.
Alan couldn't have it. He had to repair the damage. Alan didn't want to be the only parent. And he worried—or rather he knew—that if Kit could find her mother unworthy, then using the same tools of reassessment, she would find Alan unacceptable, too. (XI.42.76)
Like most parents, Alan feels guilt about his shortcomings as a parent. He feels particularly blameworthy because his daughter Kit has to deal with a mother who simply cannot adult. In his attempts to "help" Kit understand her mother, Alan has ulterior motives. He wants to share to burden of screwing up, but he also wants to keep Kit from going into "rejection mode." He can't bear to lose the only working relationship in his life.
The greatest tragedy about Ruby was that talking about her made him sound like a bastard. She had done him great harm, repeatedly—she'd torn him open, thrown all kinds of terrible ruinous stuff inside him, and then had sewn him back up—but Kit couldn't know that. (XV.28.103)
Alan's feelings about his failed marriage are complex and conflicted. He knows that Ruby's behavior was out of control—even scary. But he also feels responsible for her deep dissatisfaction and unhappiness. If only he'd been the type of man she needed, the whole situation wouldn't have been so harsh. Still, it would be nice if he could dish on her once in a while and not look like a jerk.
I guess I'd realized that they lied from time to time. And that my mom took pills, had been hooked on morphine when I was younger. And so I lorded it over them. I was the perfected version of them, I thought. Makes you think of Hitler Youth or the Khmer Rouge, right? The children, full of themselves and their purity, shooting the adults in the rice paddies. (XV.68.112)
Alan knows that he has to explain parental failure to Kit so that she doesn't chuck both her dad and mom out of her life. But perhaps the comparison to Hitler Youth or the Khmer Rouge is a tad much. Still, he makes a good point: children find it easy to blame their parents because they haven't had the chance to make mistakes. Yet. Alan shares his own experience at the blame game with Kit in the hope that he won't be the first parent in her crosshairs.
God, the whole thing was underhanded and it was cowardly and lacking in all principle. It was dishonor. And at Ground Zero. Alan was pacing, his hands in fists. The dishonor! At Ground Zero! Amid the ashes! (XVII.78.136)
When Alan's friend Terry tells him that the contract for the blast resistant glass at Freedom Tower was given to a Chinese firm, it's more than just a drag for the American companies that lost the bid. It's national shame.
Still, we don't know who to blame for this action: the government, for not choosing an American company? The American company for selling its patent to the Chinese? Eggers does a good job here of showing how complex economic reality is, even when messy emotions like nationalism creep in.
And I was gone all the time. I was already on to Taiwan and China. I missed a few years there. I didn't want to be in Taiwan, did I? But everyone else was. I missed a few of your important years there and I regret that. (XXIII.49.201)
Alan's in confession mode, pouring his heart out to Kit through drunken letters. It's clear that he feels guilty that work—work that ultimately destroyed him and so many others—took him away from her side. It's not an uncommon regret for working parents. But for Alan, the gamble didn't pay off: he missed her childhood and he still can't provide for her future.
Alan did not sleep. He tried to calm his thoughts, but everything came back to what he'd almost done. 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)
Did you ever have those fantasies about being a rock star or just doing something pretty epic, no matter how brief? Alan is no different in his desire to do something, anything, to give meaning and purpose to his life. He really wants to have that good story to tell, the legacy to leave behind him when he's gone.
All of this longing is intensified by the sheer magnitude of failure in his personal and professional life. But in his eagerness to achieve, he nearly blows the head off a Saudi shepherd boy. He wants to be the one to kill the rogue wolf because that would really be a thing. Too bad that desire for fame nearly leads to infamy.