There's a lot I'm not supposed to love about the unnamed narrator in Ottessa Moshfegh's latest novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation. She's solipsistic (but sublimely so), she's mean to her friend all the time (but hilariously so), and she's completely detached from the larger political reality surrounding her (but admittedly so).
However, there's one component of this character's personality that reveals the deep well of humanity hidden beneath all her cynicism and misanthropy: she loves Whoopi Goldberg. Moshfegh shares her narrator's love of Whoopi, and so do I. And so I saw no other choice but to call up Moshfegh, who was posted up in a hotel in San Francisco at the time, and have a conversation exclusively about Whoopi's greatness. (Moshfegh reads from her new novel at Elliott Bay Books tonight at 7 p.m.)
When did you first realize that Whoopi Goldberg was the greatest living artist in America?
I don’t know if I think that she’s the greatest living artist in America, but she is certainly one of my favorite people on screen. I probably first encountered her in The Color Purple. That movie and her performance in it really moved me. When I saw her in her later movies, which were mostly comedic, I just thought she was amazing. I never watched Star Trek, but I remember flipping through and seeing her appear on Star Trek in this way that was totally shocking, how different she seemed not just from the other personas characterized in the show but how she stood apart from the set in general. I found that to be true in everything I’d seen of her. She seems to have a presence that really cuts through the fictionality of the filmic world around her. It’s not that I think Whoopi Goldberg isn’t a good actress. I think she, in her really peculiar Whoopi Goldbergness, is so powerful of a presence that her authenticity seems to make all of the pretension around her look just as absurd as it really is.
Do you feel like your narrator in My Year of Rest and Relaxation exhibits this Whoopi Goldbergness, to a certain extent?
I think my character maybe feels like she might be doing that, but as the author I don’t see my narrator as being really that unusual or special. She’s no Whoopi Goldberg.
Writing about this Whoopi Effect in an interview with Lithub you write, “I’ve always been obsessed with the layers of performative reality obscuring reality in its true form.” Could you talk about what attracts you to the paradox of creating that particular kind of artificial authenticity, I guess?
I’m a fiction writer, so I’m pretty interested in the ways we can depict reality in a way that points out everybody’s own subjectivity. I just read somebody’s Twitter post about me, which was a mistake, but I think it will help answer this question.
[Moshfegh reads aloud a Tweet criticizing her for being divorced from reality.]
My response to this is: What reality? Whose reality are we talking about? I’m completely divorced from your reality? Of course I am. I’m not you. And the reality in my fiction—of course it’s divorced from the reality you’re living in. But maybe there’s enough overlap where you realize that I’m not writing about a completely different civilization on another planet. The whole point of fiction is to cast the world in a different light. There are writers who aren’t as interested in that—fine. But fiction is false, that’s the whole thing about it. To write a book that fulfills certain expectations that a reader has of a novel, the author has to manipulate what would otherwise be a really mundane story in order to make it dramatic. So reality can exist in fiction as a reality that’s being efforted in a certain direction, and that's been really interesting to me.
So you’re interested in the kinds of reality that are possible to create in fiction, but it sounds like that person is criticizing you for not writing a book that directly speaks to this political moment in the way they’d like you to. Your protagonist is a privileged white woman, you have one woman tearing down another woman throughout the book. And in this environment I think people are looking to read protest signs.
This isn’t a protest novel. If people hate me for feeling detached from whatever the newest bandwagon movement is, I’m just like, you know what? Wait five years. When you’re sick of that shit, maybe you won’t hate me anymore. I do think that social politics and the movements we’re in are very important. They have real consequences. But I think it’s dangerous to start looking at people’s presence on social media, or what they publish online, and then call them a hero. You haven’t met these people in real life. It’s very easy to manufacture a popular persona. I can’t really occupy myself with doing that.
I just really want to write books. I’m not asking for people to adore me. I don’t even want you to see what I look like on the book. Just leave me alone and read the book. I didn’t write the book as a defense of privileged escapism, I wrote it because this character seemed interesting to me and embodied a lot of feelings that were powerful for me at the time. I think the way people are looking at media right now, it’s like, if there’s a character that doesn’t represent the reader's political beliefs, then that person is wrong. We’d live a very boring world if everyone always had to agree with one another. Sorry, I'm getting riled up. Things are really fascistic online. It’s like no one wants anyone to be weird. They want people to fit in the box, or in the category.
Twitter is a bad place.
I wonder if this could get back to what we were talking about. There was a moment in American history, maybe during the golden age of cinema, when people liked to like celebrities, but now we love to hate them. Maybe that’s why my character’s adoration of Whoopi stands out as weird. She actually has admiration for Whoopi, and I do, too.
The narrator espouses a similar love for Harrison Ford. Do you feel the same way about him as you feel about Whoopi?
No, but I think he’s great. I think what Harrison Ford and Whoopi Goldberg have in common for this character is that they’re really strong figures on screen, so much so that they’re almost always playing themselves. Harrison Ford is the most trustworthy sort of rascal that I think stands out to her as a good man, a man who is familiar, who’s strong, who’s always going to do the right thing and save the girl or whatever, and I think the character finds comfort in that.
I put down the book to laugh and clap when the narrator says “My AOL screen name was ‘Whoopigirlberg2000.” Was that your actual AOL screen name at any point?
I'm going to name four Whoopi performances in films and have you rank them, if possible. Feel free to talk about what you love in particular about any of them: Burglar (1987), Sister Act (1992), The Associate (1996), The center square in Hollywood Squares.
Oh, I’ve never seen The Associate. And I don’t think I saw her on Hollywood Squares. Burglar is pretty spectacular. Both Sister Acts are great. I also think that Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Here you have this really emotional, really sincere story of love and loss, and then Whoopi Goldberg comes in and completely fucks everything up by being this hilariously funny comic link to a metaphysical world. And it’s so wrong that it’s perfect in this movie. I just think it’s unbelievable. Jumpin’ Jack Flash is great, too. You should also see Fatal Beauty, it’s from 1987. In the beginning I think she’s a detective playing undercover as a prostitute, and she’s just so fun to watch.
Do you wish to meet Whoopi and hang out? Or do you think that would ruin it?
I don’t think it would ruin anything. I’m sure she’s even cooler than I think.