Sphere of influence

"Solar" by Ian McEwan (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 287 pages, $26.95)

Ian McEwan has an uncanny talent for taking the messiness that is life — the wrong assumptions, the misunderstandings, and the deceit of both selves and others — and presenting it in such a neat, beautiful package that it becomes all the more heartbreaking.

The messy life in “Solar” is that of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Michael Beard, aging, drifting and trading purely on his past successes.

The novel starts in 2000, when Beard gets involved with the National Center for Renewable Energy, initially because of the prestige his name brings to the institute. At the same time, his fifth — and final, in his own estimation — marriage is coming to an end. He’s in a funk about it, as he really liked this wife and finds himself inconveniently obsessing over her. But the unexpected death of her lover shows us a side of Beard that is unapologetically devious, albeit not at all out of character.

Five years later, some of the fruits of the alternative-energy work at the center are going commercial; Beard’s getting the credit, but as it turns out (in a delicious twist), it’s not really his idea. And Beard’s in another relationship, not marriage but as committed as he gets (which still includes women on the side), with a woman inexplicably devoted to him.

In just five sentences McEwan gracefully captures the imbalance of the relationship and the barriers Beard has placed around himself: “I love you. She had written and said this many times, but he had never said it back to her, not even in moments of abandon. And not because he thought he did not love her. He was never quite sure on that count. Long ago he had learned never to declare love to anyone.”

The last section of “Solar” takes us up to practically the present day, when a full-scale solar energy project is about to be put into practice in New Mexico, and when all of the loose ends of Beard’s past get tangled in the dusty desert. But don’t expect a resolution: Everything’s even more of a mess at the end than it was at the start.

Beard is not a very likable guy: He’s petty, lazy, selfish, sexist, gluttonous, self-serving, womanizing, deceitful and slovenly. But while McEwan doesn’t make us like Beard — he doesn’t even try to — he does make us care what happens to him. And that’s one of the joys of this novel: We have no idea where it’s going, but we sure do want to find out.

Another joy, of course, is McEwan’s writing, which, as always, is beautifully spare. We get to know his characters by watching what they do, not from him telling us about them. He subtly weaves details of Beard’s past relationships, his childhood and his work through the novel. And he doesn’t shy away from science, either, tackling climate change and Einstein with equal aplomb, and getting in a few jabs at scientists themselves.

That’s a pleasant surprise in “Solar”: how funny it is. The humor is satirical and often dark, but the humor blends well with the subject, who himself teeters on the verge of absurd.

A particularly delicious example of this is when Beard carefully relates an incident that happened to him on the train — with only minimal editing and embellishment — to a roomful of conferencegoers, only to be told directly after that his story is an archetypal folk-tale, which even has a name among folklorists.

Humor gives this messy tale a kick, and allows us to arrive at the end not heartbroken but enlightened, and yes, even entertained.