There on his spine, a lump like that—it had to be invasive and deadly. Lately he'd been cloudy of thought and clumsy of gait, and it made perfect and terrible sense that there was something growing there, eating away at him, sapping him of vitality, squeezing away all acuity and purpose. (II.36.10)
Alan has a strange relationship with Señor Spinal Lump. On one hand, he's terrified that it's something that will take his life. On the other, he really, really hopes it will kill him. At the very least, it could have the decency to be the excuse for all of his inexcusable behavior. If he can blame all of his shortcomings on Lumpy, he won't have to spend time figuring out what he's doing with his life—and why he's turned out this way.
The man, who was drunk and maybe unhinged, too, was, like Alan, born into manufacturing and somewhere later got lost in worlds tangential to the making of things. He was soaking himself in gin and tonics and finished with it all. (II.61.13-14)
The "man" here is another lost businessman who shares an international flight with Alan. Like Alan, he finds himself with the short end of the stick after all the technological and economic changes to the business world. One thing is clear: both men find their Cosmic Purpose in Life hopelessly entangled with their professional success.
But no. He was more than that. Some days he was more than that. Some days he could encompass the world. Some days he could see for miles. Some days he climbed over the foothills of indifference to see the landscape of his life and future for what it was: mappable, traversable, achievable. (II.76.17)
Alan suffers some seriously manic highs and lows since his professional life tanked on him. In this moment, he's riding a wave and feels that he can regain all the splendor of his youth, when he had mad sales skills and lots of respect from his peers. But there's more to it. It was a time when Alan had direction and purpose in life—far from the bottomless free-fall that his life has become.
There were too many, girlfriends who became old friends, then old friends, girlfriends who got married, who aged a bit, whose kids were now grown. And then there were the dead. Dead of aneurysms, breast cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. It was madness. His daughter was twenty now, and soon would be thirty, and soon after, the afflictions came like rain. (III.75.27)
So it's not a surprise that Alan, already depressed about his outmoded skill set and surrounded by super young colleagues, would turn his thoughts to the inevitable. His revelation of the day? There are a thousand ways to die after a certain age. Sure, his neck lump isn't helping him have happier thoughts. But imagining the health problems Kit will have in maybe twenty years is a sure sign that Alan's gone into a very dark place.
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)
Alan doesn't know much about anything—including his purpose in life. His run of bad luck clouds his internal vision even more: he can't even say that being an ace salesman is his reason for living. It's worth noting that Alan landing in a desert at this time in his life (no Water of Clarity there!) is no coincidence. His "spiritual dehydration" won't be relieved any time soon.
Their faces said, You are not supposed to be there, fifty feet under the earth, walking like that, pacing, angry, recounting unchangeable events from not just your own past but that of the country as a whole. (XVII.82.137)
At this moment, Alan gets caught pacing maniacally in the unfinished foundation of a giant building. He's not supposed to be there, in so many ways. He could never imagine that he would be at this point in his life: depressed, bankrupt, divorced, middle-aged, unaccomplished. Well, and also, he's really not supposed to be in the foundations of the building. Even he acknowledges the oddity that his life has become.
How could he have predicted the world losing interest in people like him? (XVIII.11.141)
This sums up all of Alan's existential angst—and, btw, everyone else's. Alan's really experiencing something universal: the sense that human usefulness and relevance fades as we age. Alan struggles to understand his purpose on the Reliant team (what skills does he really have?) and his place in the life of his family (who really needs him?). In the end, Alan's just gonna have to deal with it—like everybody else.
There would be a time when the world created people stronger than them. When all of this got worked out. But until then there would be men and women like Hanne and Alan, who were imperfect and had no path toward perfection (XXII.119.191)
Alan finds himself in a really awkward place: Hanne's bathtub. He doesn't really want to be there, but he isn't courageous enough to step away. He doesn't want to hurt her feelings, but he has none. This is the scene as we leave them, each not quite getting what they want from the other. But is Eggers speaking tongue-in-cheek here? Hanne and Alan are not perfect because they're humans. What makes Mr. Narrator so sure that, one day, humans will be any better?
We push the buttons that provide the rewards. Again the greatest use of a human was to be useful. Not to consume, not to watch, but to do something for someone else that improved their life, even for a few minutes. (XXII.115.191)
So Alan's not having the most fulfilling love life in the world. He may get an invite into Hanne's bathtub, but he's not really feeling it. Hanne's a little more, um, practical about the whole situation. She has needs, and it doesn't really matter that Alan isn't Mr. Right.
But to Alan, the whole scenario makes him feel objectified: he's nothing more than a worker on an assembly line that knows how to work the machinery. And this leads to a more terrifying thought: is this the ultimate purpose of human existence?
The work of man is done behind the back of the natural world. When nature notices, and can muster the energy, it wipes the slate clean again. (XXVII.74.264)
The rugged and forbidding landscape of the Saudi Arabian desert leads Alan to wonder why any human would even attempt living there. Alan doesn't see a benevolent Mother Nature when he looks out onto the arid land; he sees Nature "red in tooth and claw." Yeah, she's gonna get you.
It's a bleak way of thinking about our relationship with nature, but Alan can't really help it. When he sees the fragility of Yousef's home village and how precarious the villagers' way of life really is, he can hardly help himself.