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Recording Reykjavik and Oslo

Some 12 years ago I began writing about a small town in upstate New York very much like the one I inhabit. There was an undeniable convenience to this. While I was certainly interested in my adopted hometown, there is no question that the place I have been calling Leyden, New York, in my work became increasingly easy to describe and portray. The primary challenge was to do the kind of double bookkeeping liars must pursue, to check that I wasn't contradicting myself from book to book.

I don't know that I'm finished with Leyden, but in my most recent novel the town figured so prominently that I sensed it might be time to give it a rest, and now I am writing a novel in which the physical action takes place far from my quasi-imaginary upstate village. It is the story of 10 American men traversing the globe on a world sex tour. The men are all prosperous enough to be able to afford such an expensive vacation, and, it could be argued, poor enough, psychologically and ethically, to want to go on one. The group includes a heart surgeon and a young man who may be his dying son, a lottery winner, a retired professional basketball player, a potential appointee to the Supreme Court, and a journalist who has signed on to the trip in the hope of writing about it. The entrepreneur who runs the tour is Lincoln Castle, an affable but secretive man, whose past is as shadowy and dank as West 58th Street on a late Manhattan afternoon. Castle has no interest in bringing his clients to such typical sex tour sites as Thailand and the Philippines. Instead, he flies his charges to more prosperous venues, including St. Bart's, Iceland, Norway, France, and Hong Kong.

I've spent the past year marshaling my cast of characters, imagining incidents, and experimenting with voices, tenses, and points of view. After nearly 200 pages of sketches and false starts, I have finally reached the point where the novel is more or less ready to be written.

Well, almost. Perhaps I've been a little spoiled by the intellectual luxury and writerly ease of recycling locales, but I was suddenly quite worried about having my men traipsing around landscapes I had only read about or seen in pictures, but have never visited myself.

For instance: Iceland and Norway. I could not travel in a sumptuously appointed private jet with a bunch of like-minded strangers, swilling champagne and contemplating a descent into a kind of prepaid debauchery. But I could fly Icelandair from New York and be in Reykjavík in just over five hours. And after that, Oslo. I would imagine that I was with my characters, sleep where they would sleep, eat where (and what) they would eat, and take as many notes as I could. To ensure that all recording was done in the way most useful to me, I left my camera at home—no loss to the art of photography, but a surprisingly wrenching decision. I was going to be using the two countries somewhat in the way a painter uses a model, or a bowl of fruit, and I wanted to do so without the intermediary interpretations of snapshots.

As the elegant Icelandic flight attendants prepare the plane for landing, I look down at the North Atlantic and am struck by its calm surface. Here and there, little whitecaps, like dropped handkerchiefs. In the distance: a tangerine-colored beacon from a lone coastal lighthouse. Then, suddenly, with no noticeable transition, no cliffs, no breakers, no seaside community, the gray-blue sea turns a soft, muted green as we fly low over an expanse of rock and lichen.

The Danes, whose imperial flag used to fly over this island nation, gave up Iceland in 1944 without a fight, and driving into Reykjavík it's not hard to understand why. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, Iceland—unlike nearby Greenland—has a livable climate. That said, there is still something of the wasteland about it; in fact, NASA ran lunar training missions for the Apollo astronauts here, before blasting them off to the actual moon. Glacial and volcanic rubble is everywhere. Mile after mile of chunky rock covered in what appears to be creamed spinach. Geysers erupt from fissures in the earth.

I check into a hotel I think would be appropriate for my crew of men and repair to the breakfast buffet while my room is prepared. Iceland seems to be the land of eccentric eyeglasses. It also seems to be a place where nearly every man under 30 is wearing an expensive pair of blue jeans and a gray sweater and has an acute case of bed head. The women are a little more formal and quite beautiful—wool pants, beige cashmere sweaters, pearls.

The morning light outside is stark, somehow fantastic. A gray mist permeates, but colors pop out, as if the cinematographer has forced the film, used special filters. The first thing I must do is find a house where one of my characters—a lottery winner, now bouncing up and down on a trampoline of gold—will have an assignation. I walk down Sudurgata, with its traffic of Toyotas, Scandias, and papaya-colored Volvo buses, toward the center of town, stopping on my way at the main cemetery in Reykjavík. I would normally take a picture of this—cemetery snaps are de rigueur for most travelers—but now I take out my notebook and begin recording some of the names on the gravestones. I will need them for any Icelanders my characters meet in Chapter Six. The cemetery is a crazy quilt of headstones, crosses, and monuments tilted this way and that in the bright, cool northern light. There is something hypnotic about writing down the names of the Icelandic dead: Matthiasson, Magnusdottir. When I come to a marker with a Jewish star on it my mind begins to race: I wonder if there is some little Judaic twist I can bring to my novel's Iceland sequences.

Reykjavík has something of an Olympic village about it. The buildings are attractive, colorful, and seem deeply practical. They are as I'd imagined them, but I still must find specific places where I can set a couple of scenes—places where the women with whom Castle has contracted can bring the men. And soon I find one that strikes me: a white stone house with a sloping lawn, a white stone fence, large, immaculately washed windows, a red corrugated-tin roof, and an empty flagpole in front. Once I have the house, the conversation that will take place inside it jumps up a notch in its realness to me. I can see them. I can hear them. And then, suddenly, something extra: across the street is a lake, habitat to many, many chortling ducks, complaining gulls, meeting place for several sleepy-looking couples—the men with bed head, the women in 21st-century eyewear.

I need one more house, and quickly find it—this one made of tin the color of a frozen tomato, with a green roof, white trim around the windows, and yet another empty flagpole in front. As I am putting what is before me into my notebook, a bald man comes whizzing past me on his bicycle. From his expression, he seems to be thinking over some severe criticism that has just been leveled against him. He has dark eyes, a modest crop of chin whiskers, and large, protruding, practically transparent ears. I think I may have a sentence you can take part in, if you don't mind waiting for a year or two on page 14 of my notebook.


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