I don’t wanna sound hagiographic.
I don’t wanna sound like a naif, but I think Stephen van Dyck’s People I’ve Met From The Internet is one of the best contemporary English language books I’ve ever read.
Stephen van Dyck’s People I’ve Met From The Internet is exactly what it sounds like, a list of everyone Stephen van Dyck met from the internet from birth (well, from when he first started meeting people from the internet irl) through until 2009.
Although a lot of these meetings are hookups (the list stops before Grindr, but Gay.com, Myspace, Craigslist and – at the start – AOL chatrooms feature prominently), van Dyck’s book isn’t just a deliciously prurient catalogue of sex (though it is partly that).
Through the use of open memorialising and occasional digressions, this experimental memoir is able to evocatively and emotionally evoke big, sad, themes like grief and heartbreak and loss, as well as big, happy, themes like first love and friendship and travel and, yes, sex.
Van Dyck is an artist and writer, and he began collecting and collating this list of people [in-part retroactively] in his very early 20s for potential creative use. People are listed by their real names (if known and permission has been given), their username, the platform on which they were first encountered, the (sometimes approximate, sometimes exact) date they were first met in real life, a brief description of the first (often only) meeting, an estimate (or statement) of their age, a[n approximate] count of how many times they met and then, at the end, a simple code that describes if there was any sex and how often it happened.
The little code is simple: the letters, f, s and/or k, each followed by a number. For example, f1s2k3 would mean fucked once, sucked off/fooled around with twice, kissed thrice. For a lot of people, there’s no sexual activity. Because, as I said, this isn’t just a list of hook-ups, it’s a list of everyone van Dyck met from the internet, and – in this crazy online world in which we live in – we meet a lot of people first online…
Van Dyck writes about the death of his mother, the death of his father, about coming out, about finding home and community and creating a family through friendship.
He writes about creative practice and creative exploration, he writes about the artistic projects (video, music, literary) that he completed and those that he stalled on: he writes about people who he met as participants in workshops, friends of friends who he’d engaged with online who he’d never met irl until a party, he-
I realise I’m describing the book rather than offering any analysis of it, but I’m simultaneously cooking and I’m tired and depressed but I’m continuing to write on this blog regularly because to not do so would be to ssssssslip even further off myself.
I read van Dyck’s book and I wept many many times: it is frequently beautiful. It’s also very fucking funny, both in terms of van Dyck being a conspicuously witty writer, and there’s a fair amount of throwaway humour derived from realistic descriptions of sex: sex is funny, sex is weird, and van Dyck captures that.
Sometimes, yes, van Dyck writes about sex that is “sexy”, but most of the time he’s writing about sex that is real, that is unpretentious and physical and somehow kinda silly.
Yes, I agree with this perspective: it is silly that we all desperately want to, sometimes, get naked with other people and rub each other’s skin.
Van Dyck writes about sex with no false glamorisation of it. People fuck because it’s fun, right, not because it’s serious, and it’s a common (and imo weird/creepy) decision in lots of literature to try and elevate sexuality. Sex is base, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good, right?
To remember that sex is physical pleasure is not to say that it’s shit, but to write about orgasm and equate it with divine fucking rapture or whatever is bullshit.
When we fuck we are deeply inhabiting our bodies (in theory); sex is not an intellectual exercise, sex is not “about power”, sex is about sex. And van Dyck is under no illusions about sex.
People I’ve Met From The Internet book works, it is electric, because it takes a traditional literary form – the bildungsroman – and makes it fucking digital.
Yes, people have written joyfully about sex before, and people have joyfully written about their development into a sexual adult while contrasting that with deaths of elder family members, but it is in its structure that van Dyck makes something essential and fresh for the contemporary reader.
Because there are people young Stephen met online who became lifelong friends (and sometimes long-term lovers), the narrative is non-linear: it is about who, not about when, and we travel forwards and backwards through his life, and sometimes memories of a particular person or a particular place lead to other recollections from different stages of life, but always the shift is elegant and coherent.
Van Dyck avoids the classic pitfall of memoir and doesn’t construct contrived segues between events: there is a pattern from the start to the end, a consistent theme, and as the last person mentioned in this book was met about a decade ago, I’m sure Stephen van Dyck has met many more men and women online since, who he may write about at a later date.
This is a beautiful, human, engaging, intelligent and genuinely creative exploration of a life. I highly fucking recommend this and I intend to read anything else van Dyck publishes, though as there is a Belgian musician with a near-identical name and a Seattle architect with the exact same one and this one doesn’t seem to have a social media presence, I don’t know how to know when/if it’s available…
A belter. More like this, please, hotshot indie publishers!