By Jeff Giles
Updated March 24, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

Solar is the funniest book Ian McEwan has ever written, though granted that’s faint praise given the things his characters have done to corpses over the years. The novel’s hero is an aging Nobel Prize-winning physicist named Michael Beard. In truth, no one would call Beard a hero, apart from Beard himself: He’s vain and vulgar, a glutton for food, sex, and praise. He runs a blue-ribbon government? initiative to reverse climate change, but in actuality it’s a paycheck job to keep him busy while he screws up women’s lives. Though his novel tackles some heady science, McEwan is making a simple point here: The planet must be saved, even if some of the people on it are just awful.

In its black comedy and its glints of misanthropy, Solar recalls the work of McEwan’s buddy Martin Amis. Like Amis, McEwan’s a nearly peerless wordsmith, as well as being crazy smart. The plot of Solar — a jerk builds such a tower of lies that it seems certain to fall on him — is not the cleverest thing McEwan has ever dreamed up. But it’s a surprising book in other ways. Decades ago, McEwan wrote about the violence we do to others. Solar is about the violence we do to ourselves. B+

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