Comment: We once applauded this

'American Psycho' comes closer to explaining the slaughter at Columbine than any analysis
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The Independent Culture
AGAIN AN American high school is sprayed with bullets, and again the consumers of the British media are sprayed with gobbets of speculative analysis, pumped out by print and broadcast journalists with a wild, undiscriminating abandon reminiscent of that which was so horrifically displayed by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold themselves.

And like those two "outsider" boys, I don't want to remain aloof from the frenzy myself - even though I know that none of the hasty analytical post-mortems that will be carved out on the computers of the fourth estate will prove themselves able to find, and contain, the cancer within American culture which fosters these human tragedies cum media events.

But that doesn't stop us all from having a go. For while the British press still feels pride in the dignity and restraint of its coverage of Dunblane, the Columbine charnel house isn't so close to us. The parents of these child victims, and more pertinently, the parents of these child killers, won't see what we have to say. Therefore we can relax and say anything that comes into our heads.

We can, perhaps with some justification, blame the parents of Harris and Klebold, even though we know next to nothing about them. We can blame US gun culture, too, again with some justification. For there is no doubt that a clampdown on the proliferation of arms in America would save lives. Again this doesn't get to the heart of the matter. Removing the means contains the problem, but doesn't resolve it.

We, the print media, are fond of blaming the rest of the media, too. Violent films are to blame, computer games are to blame, the Internet is to blame, popular music is to blame, CNN is to blame: we name and blame these aspects of our culture again and again. But we never manage to shame them. For these are only symptoms, and symptoms can't be shamed.

Curiously though, a book published in Britain a few days ago tells the story of an all-American murder the print media was oddly unwilling to notice. In this true story, there are no guns and no parents. Instead, there is a group of teenage outsiders who might have stayed home and gunned down their classmates, but instead ran away from their small towns and managed for a time to be big fish in a glittering goldfish bowl of their own creation. And a look into this goldfish bowl gives us a clearer view of the dysfunctionality of American culture than any amount of squinting at Columbine is ever likely to.

The book labours under the unedifying title of Disco Bloodbath: He Came; He Partied; He Killed. If this sounds like the title of a slasher movie, you'll hardly be reassured to learn that the film rights have been purchased, and the search is on for a big-name star. Negotiations with Macaulay Culkin, that standard bearer of messed up American childhood, are well under way.

The writer is a shallow, childish 30-year-old who calls himself James St James, and his book charts the rise and fall of his friend and colleague Michael Alig. These two were central players in the rise of New York's notorious "club kid" culture, which started, like everything else we now consider to define the Nineties, in the Eighties.

The teenage Alig turned up in New York at the time when the post-Warhol club scene was reinventing itself, and hung around trying to ingratiate himself with the denizens of the scene, including St James. Initially rejected by the bafflingly hierarchy-obsessed princes of cool, he plugged away at his ambition to be a club promoter, gathering around him a group of runaway child-misfits like himself, who behaved as bizarrely as they could.

Like the heirs of Warhol that they were, these lost children became media celebrities in no time, and for no further reason than that they existed. Even though they were mixed up in all kinds of dangerous and illegal anarchies, all of this remained unquestioned by the media that never tired of rearming the celebrity that was their raison d'etre.

It goes without saying that drugs were a central part of this scene, and while Alig was initially scathing of drug use, by the early-Nineties, he had become a heroin addict himself. During an argument with a dealer - called "Angel" Melendez because he always wore a huge pair of wings - Alig and one of his hangers-on hit Melendez over the head with a hammer, smothered him with a pillow, and injected him with a drain cleaner called Drano.

His body was kept for a week in Alig's bath, where it was seen by some of the many people coming and going in his home. When the smell became unbearable, they dismembered the body and dumped it in the river. Alig confessed about the murder to many of his friends, and there were various lightweight and almost celebratory reports of the alleged murder in the US media over many months. Despite this, journalists made little attempt properly to investigate the story.

The police, too, remained as uninterested in bringing Alig to justice as his contemporaries on the club scene and the media which gave them the attention they lived for. With no body, New York's finest said, there was no murder case. Eventually, after nearly a year, the police realised that, in fact, Melendez's body had been in their mortuary all the time.

Still, they weren't too bothered about bringing his killer to justice. Instead they made a deal with Alig, whereby if he would give them the evidence that would help them to nail club owner Peter Gaiten for drug dealing, he would escape a murder trial. Alig remains in prison untried. Gaiten was tried, but the case against him collapsed.

This whole story speaks of such widespread moral redundancy, such institutionalised subversion of decency, and such a lack of curiosity about what was going on in the heads of these feral children, that it's hard, while reading it, to remember it is fact, not fiction. Instead it reads like a story that has sprung from the mind of Bret Easton Ellis, whose last novel, Glamorama, also charted the rise and fall of an "it boy" on the New York club scene.

And it's here that I have to come to the unpleasant conclusion that no one has come closer than Ellis to pinpointing the real malaise among American youth. From his first book, Less Than Zero, to his most notorious, American Psycho, Ellis has painted his young and affluent protagonists as disturbed, affectless, obsessed with celebrity and wealth, morally redundant, concerned only with the values imposed by consumerism, frightened of individuality and fearful of standing out in the in-crowd.

This form of alienation he has always intimately associated with violence. In Glamorama, our hero falls in with a group of supermodel terrorists - a plot I found far-fetched until I read St James's opus and realised that it barely strayed from real life. In American Psycho, of course, the protagonist is a misogynist serial killer.

Ten years ago, it was rejected by the US publishers who had paid an advance of around pounds 150,000 for it, and reviled in the strongest possible terms by leading commentators on both sides of the Atlantic. I believe that Ellis has come closer to explaining the factors which surround the slaughter at Columbine High than an examination of those terrible hours in Denver is ever likely to yield.

Ultimately, although he is in no sense a political writer, Ellis points the finger at free-market consumer capitalism, and our enslavement to the Siamese-twin gods of work and ownership. One steals the time we need to nurture our families, and the other steals our ability to recognise values that can't be measured in hard currency. It's not much of a legacy for our children, and one that Americans hand on more unquestioningly than any other people on this planet.

That's why the US is so good at creating little monsters, and why it is likely to continue cranking them out. For changing American society - and to a lesser extent Britain's - means ditching some of the grotesque and empty values that the country holds most dear.

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