Recording Reykjavik and Oslo

Recording Reykjavik and Oslo

John Huba Dusk on Laugavegur Street in Reykjavík: a young couple share a beer.
John Huba Dusk on Laugavegur Street in Reykjavík: a young couple share a beer.
On a fact-finding mission to Reykjavik and Oslo, Scott Spencer takes note of every detail—and confronts the darkness at the heart of his story

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.

An Icelandic acquaintance has boasted to me about her country, telling me that despite its tiny population and remote location Icelanders are, in fact, generally the first people to get the newest music, movies, books, and fashions. This may be true when it comes to eyewear, but I'm not finding much evidence of it in other areas. At one point, I wander into a Saturday flea market near the harbor, held in a large warehouse next door to the Reykjavík police station. Here, along with fish, potatoes, sweets, Ekco bag clips, fishing lures, Spiderman T-shirts, Che banners, camouflage pants, and the sort of bric-a-brac you can find in any American small-town jumble sale, is a collection of cultural dead matter that is simultaneously depressing and amusing. Particularly striking are the many Icelanders hawking videotapes of movies that you have never heard of. Sometimes, a hopeless film is described as "straight to cable," but these are movies that, as far as I know, never even made it to cable. Perhaps "straight to Icelandic flea market" is a new category of cinematic failure. For example: Act of Piracy, starring Gary Busey, Women Against Rape, starring Frank Stallone, and Salt Water Moose, with Lolita Davidovich and Timothy Dalton.

It's hard to do library research on the senses, and what I could not appreciate from my reading about Iceland was its smell. Those geothermal springs seething beneath its jumbled surface are the source of practically free home heating and hot water for everyone in the country, but when you shower you do so in a scald of sulfur. No matter what sort of soap you use, if you do not thoroughly rinse in ice-cold water you emerge from your ablutions just a little bit rank. Whatever self-consciousness you might feel about the possibility of smelling like an abandoned plate of scrambled eggs is overcome by the sense of belonging to an olfactory community, living in a world in which carrying the scent of sulfur is as natural as being a white man in Wisconsin.

One of the things I must do is find a private airport for my carousing men, and early the next morning I locate one on the edge of Reykjavík, next to the Loftleider Hotel. Clouds wrap themselves around the shoulders of the city like a feather boa. The runway is in decent repair and abuts a soccer field. Nearby is a little tour-bus office, where white vans with red and blue stripes pick up travelers bound for the main airport, the coast, and the Blue Lagoon.

My search for locations, faces, and names inevitably suggests scenes I haven't contemplated before. A visit to the Blue Lagoon, for instance, embarked upon for recreation, encourages me to bend the shape of my narrative in order to get my men into this hot, fragrant, sci-fi-blue pool between Reykjavík and the international airport. The proprietors of the la- goon will rent you a towel and a bathing suit and assure you that the lagoon's blue algae keeps the warm water absolutely bacteria-free. Nobody questions this, and soon I take my place with 100 or so others who are wading around, curing themselves of I'm not sure what, and slathering a paste of mineral salts onto their faces, shoulders, and chests. Mist rises from the milky pool. The light here is green-tinged, like the sky before a tornado. At the far end of the lagoon a vent releases a pillar of sulfuric steam. The bathers make their way toward the hot vapors, trudging slowly through the waist-deep water like characters in Dawn of the Dead. You just can't make this stuff up.

When my men have had their fill of Iceland, I pack them into my head and we set out for Norway, the next stop on their unusual Scandinavian tour. The Norwegians, once among the poorest people in Europe, are now sleek and rich—thanks, in large part, to their North Sea oil strike in the early seventies. Unlike Reykjavík, Oslo has visible minorities—a Pakistani community, for instance, and a number of Vietnamese.

In the old downtown section, strung-out kids eat pizza slices on cement steps between a titty bar and a grim little gewgaw shop selling Kama Sutra statues, peacock feathers, little Peruvian purses, and enough incense to fill several Taj Mahals with choking clouds of lotus, lemon, strawberry, and rose. At least three of my men would make this part of town their headquarters.

In all semi-innocence, I then wander into a sex shop. The store is brightly lit, friendly, done up in mauve, pink, and silver. It feels like a cosmetics shop for young people, and, in fact, nearly all the customers just now are girls who, despite whatever age restrictions may apply to the place, appear to be between 15 and 19 years old. They are browsing in groups, checking out bright blue dildos and a fairly encyclopedic collection of vibrators. A laid-back, handsome young couple in faded jeans and suede jacketsis browsing through the porno DVD's. A moody-looking teenage girlwith broad shoulders, a blood-red sweater, and so little color in her face that her blue eyes look almost black, is checking out a display of clocks that tick to the motion of fornicating sheep, bulls, and porcupines. I could have made up the sheep and the bulls; the porcupines probably would not have occurred to me.

I walk around Oslo looking for people to put in my novel. Oslo is quiet, almost muffled—the streetcars, even the trumpets and trombones on the occasional bandstand all seem to be operating with some huge Dolby system taking out the highs and lows. A deliveryman emptying cases of beer from his truck sets each one down on his handcart with care, as if he were bringing a shipment of Bibles into a cathedral. A couple of Arabs fill their water bottles from the fountain in front of one of Oslo's immense churches. I count how many people I see smoking. I note the high prices of everything.

Most of my characters will walk these streets in a fugue state of desire. They will come here for blondes and they will be overwhelmed by the profusion of those sacred objects of desire. Oslo is, of course, lousy with blondes. Their skin is the same color as their teeth, and their scalps are pink, and they are everywhere. They are digging in their purses for change, turning hot dogs at street-corner stands, pulling vacuum cleaners down the long corridors of luxury hotels, riding bikes, punching up sales on cash registers, wandering here and there in packs, smoking, waiting for the trolley, boarding boats, leading packs of even blonder schoolchildren through the National Gallery of Art; they wear short sweaters and blouses that expose their marzipan midriffs. The men are in the cafés, braying at football on the TV, or, perhaps, home, dreaming of Beyoncé.

I make a trip to the cemetery to write down names and then find a couple of private dwellings where I can locate a couple of scenes. There's an absence of political graffiti: the overwhelming tidiness of Norway seems to extend even to radicals and teenagers. I find a Catholic church in this deeply Protestant land—St. Olav's, a bit dowdy, with Scandinavian-flavored carvings of the stations of the cross and a reliquary of St. Olav's sleeve and hand—so my Catholic character can have a moment by himself. Grabbing what might be useful for my novel is like filling up a shopping cart before a hurricane—you never know what you will need.

Research turns into inspiration when I get off task and take a taxi to the Munch Museum. It's a modern space, and the outdoor café seems, at least today, to be a meeting spot for new Norwegian mothers. Inside is a rather complete collection of Edvard Munch's work, beginning with his stiff and unpromising early drawings then plunging into the tortured, visionary paintings and woodcuts for which he is world famous. Mixed in with the familiar Munchs are a couple of paintings that mysteriously conjure within me all that I have not yet understood about the story I am writing. The first is called Selvportrett mot Rød Bakgrunn ("Self-portrait Against a Red Background"), and it shows the artist in a blue suit and vest in front of a deep red background, his hand in his pocket. Something stirs within me, and then I see Selvportrett i Helvete, in which he imagines himself in hell, staring out at us before a background of flame and smoke. He is naked to the pubic bone; there are slashes of red paint across his neck and green around his back and shoulder. My traveling companion, also a writer, joins me in front of "Self-portrait in Hell," where I've been standing for 15 minutes.

"What's up?" she asks.

"My guys are going to hell," I say. "It's a sex tour led by Satan. That's the part of Lincoln Castle I could never figure out."

She nods, and then says, "He's the devil?"

"Maybe not the but a."

We spend a couple of days in Norway. I feel my work is done, but I continue to scribble in my notebooks. (I will never take a camera on a trip again.) The fjords are glycerin. No, scratch that: the fjords are black ice. The train ride from Oslo to Bergen brings us past glaciers, waterfalls, immaculate farms. Peace and prosperity at every turn.

The breeze in Bergen touches you like fingers that have been feeding lox to a loved one. An acquaintance in the Norwegian music business takes us to a waterfront bar called Femte i Andre, where the eloquent bartender gives us a history of aquavit in his BBC-inflected English, reveling in the mythology of Scandinavian drunkenness while lighting my cigarette, our companion's cigar, and, in a moment of overzealous chivalry, my girlfriend's eyeglasses—she has made the error of taking them off, and in the bartender's peripheral vision they are a tobacco product. As Jo Ann wipes the sulfur smudge off her glasses, I am thinking: This is definitely going in. But the truth is, I am barely here. When a writer finds what he wants, he needs to get down to work, and ever since standing in front of the Munch paintings two days earlier, I was done, I was gone, I was already home.

Unless you are a glutton for dark, bitter nights, summer (from May through September) is the time to visit both countries. Icelandair (800/223-5500; and SAS (800/221-2350; offer daily flights from North America to Reykjavík and Oslo, respectively.

101 Hotel
This downtown hotel opened last year in high Icelandic style. The minimalist bar downstairs is so cool, it's hot. DOUBLES FROM $359. 10 HVERFISGATA, REYKJAVIK; 011-354/580-0101;

Hótel Borg
A perennial favorite in the city center, with restored Art Deco flourishes and fantastic service. DOUBLES FROM $360. 11 POSTHUSSTRÆTI, REYKJAVIK; 011-354/551-1440;

Hotel Bastion
Celebrated designer Anemone W. Våge created the warm residential style of this newly renovated downtown property. DOUBLES FROM $220. 7 SKIPPERGATEN, OSLO; 47-2/247-7700;

Grand Hotel
A palatial, copper-topped building, with 19th-century glamour and history to match. DOUBLES FROM $335. 31 KARL JOHANS GATE, OSLO; 800/223-5652 OR 47-2/321-2000;

Vox Restaurant This popular newcomer serves Continental dishes with a regional twist, such as puffin breasts with foie gras. DINNER FOR TWO $250. 2 SUDURLANDSBRAUT, REYKJAVIK; 011-354/444-5050;

The menu changes often at this city standout; summer favorites include arctic snapper. DINNER FOR TWO $150. 26 THORVALD MEYERS GATE, OSLO; 47-2/287-0467

Femte i Andre
The Strand Hotel's harbor bar. 2-4 STRANDKAIEN, BERGEN; 47-5/559-3300

Blue Lagoon
Summer hours for the geothermal spa are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. ENTRY FEE $16. 240 GRINDAVIK, SVARTSENGI, ICELAND; 011-354/420-8800;

Munch Museum
53 TØYENGATA, OSLO; 47-2/349-3500;

—Amy Farley

Explore More

More from T+L