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Recording Reykjavik and Oslo

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.

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