Reality Bites as the Source for Infinite Jest?

Robert Harrison’s recent Entitled Opinions episode about David Foster Wallace reminded me of an interesting coincidence I discovered last year.1

In 1994, two years before the publication of David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus Infinite Jest, the generation X cult classic Reality Bites appeared. (Spoiler Alert: I’ll ruin thematic and plot elements of both works in the following.) In a pivotal scene towards the end of the film, Ben Stiller’s character,2 a yuppie named Michael who represents sincerity to Ethan Hawke’s irony, faux, intellectualism and posing, confronts Ethan Hawke’s character, Troy:

Michael: You know what you are, man? You know what you remind me of? You’re like that guy, you know, with the…with the hat and the bells and the little, you know…

Troy: The court jester.

Michael: Yeah, right. Where everything’s so easy to laugh at…from a safe distance back in Clever-Clever Land. You know what happens to him? They find his skull in a grave, and they go “Oh I knew him, and he was funny.” And the guy, the court jester, dies all by himself.

Troy: Where’d you hear that, a Renaissance festival?

(I’ve posted a video of the full scene here, with few more lines of dialogue. It’s worth watching.3)

This is, of course, a clear allusion to Hamlet‘s late jester Yorick, the source of Infinite Jest‘s title. (“Alas, Poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.” Act 5, Scene 1) Is this a coincidence, or is it possible that Wallace saw the movie in February 1994, and this gave him the idea for the title?

Here’s my argument for the theory4:

  • The themes of Reality Bites match those of Infinite Jest. In both works, we have a video-based, postmodern world, with a young Generation X wondering what to do, fighting against irony, etc. My take on Reality Bites was that Ethan Hawke’s character was a jerk,5
    that Ben Stiller was the better guy, and that Winona Ryder should have gone with him.6 Compare David Foster Wallace’s ending Infinite Jest with a focus on Gately, a move towards sincerity.7

  • From what I remember of the book, the only references to the Yorick scene in Hamlet consist of the titles of the movie in the filmography, and the Poor Yorick Production company, both of which easily could have been added 1994-1995 after most of the novel was finished. (Of course, there are many connections between Infinite Jest and Ulysses—most obviously Madame Psychosis/metempsychosis,8 but more fundamentally the stylistic similarities—and Ulysses has Hamlet connections. So it’s possible that there could be a deeper Hamlet connection in Infinite Jest that I’m forgetting.9)

  • Infinite Jest came out in 1996. The working title (according to David Lipsky’s interview, p. 79) was “A Failed Entertainment.” So it’s unclear when it got the “Infinite Jest” title. Reality Bites came out in February 1994; according to Lipsky (p. 245), Wallace delivered the manuscript in June 1994. It’s therefore quite possible that DFW saw the movie, which reminded him of the scene in Hamlet, and this gave him the idea of the title (especially given the thematic similarities with his work—perhaps he shared my aggravation at Winona Ryder’s choice?).

Is this possibly true?

Reader, I have been disingenuous with you. Last summer, when I discovered this coincidence, a little google sleuthing turned up nothing inconsistent with the theory that this was the source of the title. So I emailed DT Max, author of the since-published biography Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. Had Wallace come up with the title before?

Alas, it seems that this tantalizing theory doesn’t hold; Max emailed me back and said that it had the “Infinite Jest” title all along. And so—unless some other evidence comes up—I will have to accept this as among the many coincidences in the world.10

  1. I heartily recommend Entitled Opinions. I was lucky enough to take a seminar on existentialist fiction with Harrison my senior year; it’s been lovely to be able to continue to hear his thoughts from afar. It’s worthwhile listening to Harrison criticize Wallace. Although I’m much more receptive to Wallace’s work, I share Harrison’s uneasiness about Wallace’s stylistic overabundance. (Unlike Harrison, I find this most annoying in his nonfiction; Infinite Jest, unlike almost everything else he wrote (that I have read), escapes the criticism because the style fits naturally with the content of the book. The defense of Wallace that I think Harrison’s guest Michael Hoyer should have made would be to compare Wallace with James Joyce, who likewise is guilty of stylistic excess.) 
  2. I’ll conflate the names of actors and their characters, since actor names are much easier to remember. Obviously I don’t think it’s actually Ben Stiller. 
  3. Excuse the advertisement that youtube might show; even though my posting of the clip is legitimate under fair use, it’s within Google’s prerogative to identify the copyright owner and monetize for them. 
  4. Disclaimer: It’s been several years since I read Infinite Jest, and almost a year since I watched Reality Bites, although this post is based on notes I took at the time. 
  5. Could one also see a slight resemblance between DFW and Hawke’s character? Both smart, ironic, long-haired, grungy? Hawke’s character being more physically attractive, DFW being far less of a jerk. Perhaps a self-hating DFW (who hates the irony of his generation) sees this? Thus we have a parallel—this is stretching it, I know— of Hawke/irony/DFW/Hal vs Stiller/sincerity/Gately? 
  6. This is my attitude even with Hawke’s crying at the end. 
  7. Consider, also, the following on irony and sentiment from Infinite Jest:

    Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naive and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclitically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool. (694-695)

  8. Perhaps, too, it occurs to me, there’s a Dedalus-Hal, Bloom-Gately connection? This is a stretch. 
  9. Yes, it is a novel featuring the death of a father, adultery by a mother with an uncle, etc. But Avril’s lover, Charles Tavis, is her (adopted) brother not her late husband’s, so to suggest a Hamlet connection is wrong here. (D.T. Max makes an error in his biography, p. 160, when he suggests the affair is with Hal’s paternal father, as in Hamlet. [Of course it’s possible, I suppose, that I’m missing some ambiguity in the text; I haven’t gone back to examine closely. In fact, looking online, I see that there’s ambiguity about whether Tavis is an adopted or a step brother.]) 
  10. An observation on human psychology: When I emailed Max, I wrote that this theory of mine was easily falsifiable. Max, in turn, provided just that falsification. And yet, after the fact, I still want to hold on to the theory. Now I understand how people become crazy obsessives about their pet theories.