Vanity Fair’s Fishy Tales From Iceland

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Demonstrators gather in Reykjavik. Photo: Getty Images

With no less than three major magazines this month covering Iceland, we turned to writer Jonas Moody — an American who has lived on the island for the past seven years — to help us parse some of the more interesting reportage.

Since Iceland’s financial collapse, it seems like every media outlet on the face of the earth has trekked out here. Much of the coverage accurately reflects our terrible situation, like Ian Parker’s recent piece in The New Yorker. But with only 320,000 people on this frozen rock in the middle of the Atlantic, a journalist might be left wanting for more drama, sob stories, or quirky anecdotes. And that’s when journalism can start toeing a farcical line.

Take, for instance, Michael Lewis’s recent Vanity Fair piece, “Wall Street on the Tundra.” Lewis is a legend of financial writing, and he also happens to be quite entertaining. In that respect, the article doesn’t disappoint: His is a wild account of a backwards Nordic island populated by “lumpy” and “inbred” people who might force you to shower in scalding water or, worse, blow up a Range Rover. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think we were a sitcom waiting to happen.

Unfortunately, none of this is exactly true. If you want to get the story right, the article’s more colorful details deserve a reality check. Some standouts:

1. “People are hoarding food and cash and blowing up their new Range Rovers for the insurance.”

The national diet of sheep heads and cod certainly has gotten more expensive, but no one is hoarding food. Likewise, there has been no run on the banks. Besides, the nation puts 99 percent of retail transactions on plastic anyway — from parking meters to hot-dog vendors. Consumers wouldn’t know what to do with hoarded cash, nor would the teenagers running the registers.

2. Lewis describes “unsettling explosions” outside his hotel room, which he later infers are the result of Range Rover owners who are so desperate to get out from under their car loans that they “set it on fire and collect the insurance: Boom!”

To Lewis’s credit, there was a news story some time ago about a string of mysterious car fires — but how a well-timed fireball will make one’s inflated car loan disappear remains a mystery. We’re still lacking that essential step that gets one from “loud bang” to “Range Rovers exploding.” But needless to say, car bombs are not yet a fixture in the Reykjavík soundscape.

3. Iceland’s geothermic water is so hot that when municipal work is being done on the cold-water pipes, sometimes people are “boiled alive” in the shower.

Granted, the warm water stinks like bad eggs and there’s an endless supply of it. But it’s not like the Icelanders run it directly from the volcanoes. Moreover, Reykjavík's water-utility company says that even if the cold-water pipes are turned off, it's impossible for the water coming out of a shower to ever exceed 70°C.

4. Most Icelanders look “mousy-haired and lumpy.”

What is this guy’s problem?

5. “Icelanders are among the most inbred human beings on earth — geneticists often use them for research.”

Now this is insulting. Icelanders’ DNA shows their roots to be a healthy mix between Nordic Y chromosomes and X chromosomes from the British Isles. The reason genetic-research company deCODE uses Icelandic genes for its research is not because the codes are so homogeneous, but because the population has kept excellent genealogical records dating back thousands of years.

6. “There are only about 9 surnames in Iceland.”

There are closer to 1,700 recognized surnames in the national registry.

7. “If they fill out a form, they can start their own cult and receive a subsidy.”

Okay, fine: If a religious group is registered with the Icelandic state, it can apply for funding based on the size of its congregation. But the group has to convince a committee — including a university theologist and sociologist — that it is an established organization with cultural or historical roots. So they’re not just handing out money at the door to every phony cult.

8. The nation has to deal with “elves — in whom some large number of Icelanders, steeped long and thoroughly in their rich folkloric culture, sincerely believe.” Alcoa, an aluminum-smelting multinational with operations outside of Reykjavík, had to “defer to a government expert to scour the enclosed plant site and certify that no elves were on or under it.”

Right. I’ve heard the elf thing mentioned in tired travel articles (normally wedged between paragraphs on the beauty of waterfalls and tips for eating ram testicles), but I personally know no one on this island who believes in elves. Not one. As for Alcoa, their rep believes Lewis is likely referring to a law regarding environmental-impact assessments. The assessment includes an archaeological survey to ensure no important artifacts or ruins are destroyed, and the site’s history is also surveyed to see if it was ever named in any Icelandic folklore. And yes, some of that folklore involves elves. But if you’re going to introduce the notion that some kind of Ministry of Elf Inspection exists within the ranks of the Icelandic government, you might as well also note that we take the Hogwart’s Express to the office every day.

Editor's Note: Vanity Fair has responded to this article in the comments (page four).