Maria Hummel Dissects Violence in Art with “Still Lives”

The descriptors “indiscernible” and “most disquieting of ways” are closer to describing the impossibility of description than they are to describing visual art. Under the mentorship of Jay Eastman, a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter, she was helping compile reporting about drug crimes in a Vermont town when she interviewed a young woman named Nikki, who became integral to the story. Still Lives is an uneven book, but its highs are more than worth the lows along the way. Hummel’s prose descriptions of the paintings are somewhat at odds with the moral position that the characters — if not the writer herself — have taken toward these works. Maggie thinks more about the actual murders of Kitty Genovese, Nicole Brown Simpson, and others than she does Lord’s artistic renderings. It seems more appropriate for the first part of the book, yet it precedes one of the tensest scenes in all of Still Lives and does very little for the character or the story. When I was 12, I babysat their kids, wiped their noses and bums for five dollars an hour and a daily assault of dumb blonde jokes from their Uncle Larry. Lord’s “Still Lives” exhibit comprises macabre self-portrait paintings in which she depicts herself as the victims of famous murders. What alleviates that tension is both the inherent impossibility of representing the full power of a visual work in a written portrayal of it and the distance from the subject matter Hummel creates by keeping Maggie and what she is feeling at the center of the story instead of the art itself. He has written for the New Republic, The New Inquiry, WBUR’s The ARTery, and elsewhere. This acceleration occurs because Maggie is finally allowed to truly desire something. Near the beginning of the novel, the reader learns that Maggie originally wanted to be a journalist. Not until today’s undisclosed press release about her [donating the paintings to the museum] has Kim Lord ever acknowledged that she, too, might be capitalizing on these horrific crimes. This is possible because her descriptions are clipped, blunt, and easy to exit, such as in this example:
“The Black Dahlia” [painting] scarcely has a single patch unsplashed by red. Selling with one hand and criticizing with the other. Of course, Still Lives is fiction and the “Still Lives” exhibit is akin to a painted version of true crime, so Lord’s potential death is inevitably emotionally subordinate to the ones readers know to be real. I know the cramps of overworked hands. The more Hummel settles into the plot machinations the better the novel gets, as the hazy ideological questions and confusing passages fall away. It feels contrived and mechanical. Everything becomes heightened and more difficult for Maggie to navigate, and Hummel writes these tensions well. JULY 7, 2018
MAGGIE RICHTER IS an editor at a historic but struggling art museum in Los Angeles set to exhibit provocative new work by Kim Lord, a boundary-pushing feminist artist. I grew up down on a dirt road next to rednecks whose favorite sport was drinking Budweiser and skidooing donuts in their backyard. This is thoughtful, but it confronts the idea of the art as opposed to the art itself. I know I am lucky to have escaped. Hummel engages with complicated and challenging questions about the meaning and impact of art that depicts violence, and she writes a hell of an ending. The baggage Still Lives carries is real, but it comes from an effort to enrich the story. They are gruesome, and staff members waver on their value and wisdom, on whether they horrify the observer or glorify the murder. I know the bored haggard faces of my supervisors, who were overseeing the same dismal landscape of cash registers and dirty tables at forty because there were no other jobs for them. The finesse with which Hummel writes around the images is a product of the central ideological tension she is navigating. Hummel admirably lets that tension and discomfort sit. Though Lord is missing from the start, the mystery-solving takes more than 100 pages to get chugging. When Lord never shows at the opening, her boyfriend, the gallery owner Greg Shaw Ferguson, is implicated in her disappearance, and Maggie, who used to date Ferguson, sets out to prove his innocence by finding Lord herself. Before she’s even seen the paintings, Maggie feels uneasy about the press releases she has written for the show, thinking,
The more praise I penned, the more it rang false to me — to be so stagy in your subject matter, to take another woman’s victimization and make it your material. He called me Faggie Maggie, as in “Hey, Faggie Maggie, how does a blonde like her eggs in the morning? Despite this, Still Lives is an effective thriller with a delectable final 100 pages. She is no longer merely curious or scared or interested, she must figure out what happened. Before the piece was published, Nikki, who had bragged publicly about her involvement with the story, was killed. If only the whole book hummed along in this mode. The missteps won’t be forgotten, but forgiveness is more than earned. This passage has the apparent purpose of distancing Maggie from her privileged Los Angeles counterparts, exposing how alien the milieu is to her, and highlighting just how far she has come in life, but this was already well-trod terrain. Her target is small. This is of a piece with the uncanny feeling that certain parts of Still Lives read as if they are from a version of the book written by a different author about a slightly different thing. For example, about two-thirds of the way through, after Hummel has firmly established Maggie’s character, her background, and her relationship with Los Angeles, there is this passage:
I wasn’t raised to deserve anything but my own struggling existence. Still Lives is fundamentally about an artist depicting murdered women and then going missing — perhaps dead — herself. Hummel prioritizes conveying the experience of the paintings over conveying the paintings themselves to mimic the transcendence an observer achieves by passing over the specifics of a work to bask in the sensation it creates. But Hummel’s ambitions are somewhat higher, and it is here where Still Lives experiences turbulence. Within Still Lives, the new novel by Maria Hummel (Motherland, Wilderness Run), is a taut thriller with enough compelling elements for a propulsive book. Once she accesses this, the entire demeanor of the book changes. One of the book’s major flaws comes from Hummel’s attempt to heighten the distress its protagonist suffers. This impulse is somewhat mystifying. Fertilized!” When I was 14 I bagged groceries at the A&P; at 15 I cleaned the cafeteria at the local ski resort. ¤
Bradley Babendir is a fiction writer and critic. It weighs the narrative down just as Maggie’s investigation of the central crime is accelerating. Work is no longer an obligation or a nuisance, it’s an obstacle, as are the plans her friends try to make with her. The death of her old source Nikki is used to show that Maggie is sensitive to the murder of women, a character trait that hardly needs reinforcing, and in this case the emphasis feels gratuitous, tacked on. Maggie’s history as a journalist is important not because it highlights her dissatisfaction with her current job but because it makes it plausible that she has the investigative chops to embark on a fact-finding mission that disproves the police’s narrative when the time comes. This means that all negative reactions to Lord’s work are, in a way, a reaction to Still Lives itself. The tragic outcome filled Maggie with guilt, and it’s clear the whole way through the novel that she may never escape the psychological trauma of the incident. It reaches an addictive pitch that all books of this ilk aspire to. When it is introduced, it’s after a section break, and its awkward apartness from the main narrative never dissipates. Yet the backstory rings hollow. Still Lives is not primarily a novel-of-ideas, however; it’s a novel about Maggie and her proximity to a crime. Soon after, Maggie finally visits the exhibit and Hummel’s work becomes more challenging. [Elizabeth Short’s] figure, severed in half, is almost indiscernible in the chaos of the impastoed color and yet her exposed leg resembles Kitty Genovese’s and connects to her in the most disquieting of ways.