Featured Writer: Rob Doyle

Rob Doyle’s first novel, Here Are the Young Men, was published in 2014 by Bloomsbury and the Lilliput Press. His second book, This Is the Ritual, will be published in January 2016 (Bloomsbury / Lilliput). Rob’s fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Dublin Review, The Stinging Fly, The Sunday Times, The Sunday Business Post, The Irish Times, Gorse, and elsewhere. Rob studied Philosophy and Psychoanalysis at Trinity College Dublin. Having spent years living in London, the US, Sicily, South America, and Asia, he currently lives in Dublin.

The Thirty-Nine Heteronyms of Barry O’Brien

By the age of seventeen, Barry O’Brien, who lived with his mother in the Dublin suburb of Kilnamanagh, had published several poems in online journals with low readerships and dubious quality-standards. A sufferer from a rare form of Asperger’s Syndrome, Barry was an awkward, taciturn young man; the internet was his refuge. Poems such as $ccounter.spism and heerinmus PP-scretom earned Barry a minor following among readers of /lit/, the web-journal connected to 4Chan’s literature forum. The poems were baffling, evocative, and often funny (or just ‘total wank’, as one commenter insisted.) They contained no recognisable human subjects - no pronouns at all, in fact - and seemed like fragmentary impressions from other dimensions or unknown universes, where alien laws prevail.

After failing his Leaving Cert, Barry stayed at home, disqualified from the workforce by his illness. Having retained no friends from school, it was rare that he ever left his bedroom. His mother, a cashier at Dunnes Stores in the Square shopping centre in Tallaght, rarely saw him. Barry stayed up each night until seven or eight, and slept through the daytime. On Saturday afternoons he was visited by a social worker as part of a state-funded friendship scheme. The social worker took Barry to see films, play table-tennis, eat ice-cream in the Square, or throw a frisbee in Tymon North park. This was Barry’s only regular social engagement in the months following his Leaving Cert.

He began concentrating his creative energies on Twitter. He created first one fictional persona – a reflexologist from China’s Jilin province named Guozhi Lau – then another, and then many more. Each persona – or heteronym, to adopt the term coined a century earlier by Fernando Pessoa – had a distinct personality and biography, and was represented by a profile photo pulled from an obscure Google Images search. The heteronyms – which numbered thirty-nine by September – interacted with tweeters from all over the world, and with one another. The most popular of Barry O’Brien’s heteronyms was Kinuka Murasawi, a beautiful 24-year-old poet from Osaka, Japan, who divided her time between Rome, New York and Tokyo. At the height of her popularity, Kinuka had over 18,000 followers. She regularly tweeted literary quotes, and sometimes posted links to poems of hers that were published on literary websites. Her followers (the majority of them male) were charmed and beguiled by the poems’ chaotic syntax and incomprehensible imagery, so at odds with Kinuka’s gentle, nurturing, flirtatious persona.

Often Barry’s heteronyms would tweet one another, trading compliments or insults, and sometimes developing friendships. One of the most verbose was Derryl B, a black man in his late twenties from south Chicago who bragged of links to organized crime and hip-hop. Despite his brazen come-ons and incessant braggadocio, Derryl B was highly popular with female Tweeters. To the alarm of Kinuka’s admirers, Derryl B began a campaign of flattery and teasing clearly intended to seduce the delicate, cultured poet. His tweets to her were often brash and lewd, but sometimes chaste and tender. For weeks Kinuka ignored him. Eventually, she began to respond; before long, she appeared bewitched. After a month of public foreplay, Derryl B and Kinuka arranged to meet in New York on a weekend when they both happened to be in town (this coincidence aroused the resentful scepticism of Kinuka’s male followers.)

The following afternoon, Derryl B tweeted a succession of brazen, graphic boasts concerning his conquest of Kinuka, several of which Kinuka retweeted.

By the end of that day, Kinuka had lost over 1,700 followers.

Other heteronyms that Barry O’Brien dreamed up and set loose on Twitter included the following:

  • Sergei Dimitrivic, an earnest, 18-year-old Russian, fired up on Tolstoyan ethics and the promise of Modernism. Fumed and raged about the vulgar materialism and ‘spiritual coma’ of Putin’s Russia. Tweeted frequently on chess.
  • Peter Moran, an overweight, unemployed, depressed 30-year-old from a village near Mullingar that he had hardly ever left. Followed 539, had 39 followers (one of whom was Kinuka Murasawi). Tweeted lugubrious impressions of his own dreary life, and half-hearted attacks on local politicians.
  • A jovial Sardinian market-gardener named Lucenzio Vito D’Abruzzo, with a fondness for tweeting quotes from Leopardi, Gandhi and Chairman Mao.
  • Lucy Jones, a sandy-haired folk singer from San Francisco, questioning her prior life choices as she drifted into middle-age.
  • Alistair Lochhead, a bitterly racist Glasgow taxi-driver who tweeted images of warzones from around the world, and pictures of his daughter Chloe.
  • Larry Paravidino, an amateur Finnegans Wake scholar from a teeming Italo-Irish family in the Bronx. His tweets often consisted of incomprehensible neologisms and hip-hop lyrics.
  • A female jihadi named Aqsa Khaleeli whose tweets located her variously in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt.
  • A self-described misogynist called CT Bell who never tweeted, followed no one, uploaded no profile photo, and disappeared from Twitter without ever having broken his silence.

As he invested ever more of himself in his heteronymic progeny, Barry O’Brien’s own personality, vague and inchoate to begin with, was all-but effaced. He ate his meals in his room, no longer left the house – not even for excursions with his disappointed social worker – and spoke to no one. His thirty-eight heteronyms (the thirty-ninth, Peter Moran, tweeted his own suicide), can still be found on Twitter, where few are aware of their fictitious nature.