Maria Hummel Dissects Violence in Art with “Still Lives”

July 7, 2018   •   By Bradley Babendir

Still Lives

Maria Hummel

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. 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. Within Still Lives, the new novel by Maria Hummel (Motherland, Wilderness Run), is a taut thriller with enough compelling elements for a propulsive book. But Hummel’s ambitions are somewhat higher, and it is here where Still Lives experiences turbulence.

Lord’s “Still Lives” exhibit comprises macabre self-portrait paintings in which she depicts herself as the victims of famous murders. They are gruesome, and staff members waver on their value and wisdom, on whether they horrify the observer or glorify the murder. 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. 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 thoughtful, but it confronts the idea of the art as opposed to the art itself.

Soon after, Maggie finally visits the exhibit and Hummel’s work becomes more challenging. Her target is small. 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. 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.

Maggie thinks more about the actual murders of Kitty Genovese, Nicole Brown Simpson, and others than she does Lord’s artistic renderings. 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. 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. [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.

The descriptors “indiscernible” and “most disquieting of ways” are closer to describing the impossibility of description than they are to describing visual art.

The finesse with which Hummel writes around the images is a product of the central ideological tension she is navigating. Still Lives is fundamentally about an artist depicting murdered women and then going missing — perhaps dead — herself. This means that all negative reactions to Lord’s work are, in a way, a reaction to Still Lives itself. Hummel admirably lets that tension and discomfort sit. 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.

Still Lives is not primarily a novel-of-ideas, however; it’s a novel about Maggie and her proximity to a crime. One of the book’s major flaws comes from Hummel’s attempt to heighten the distress its protagonist suffers. Near the beginning of the novel, the reader learns that Maggie originally wanted to be a journalist. 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. Before the piece was published, Nikki, who had bragged publicly about her involvement with the story, was killed. 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.

Yet the backstory rings hollow. It feels contrived and mechanical. 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. 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. When it is introduced, it’s after a section break, and its awkward apartness from the main narrative never dissipates.

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. I grew up down on a dirt road next to rednecks whose favorite sport was drinking Budweiser and skidooing donuts in their backyard. 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. He called me Faggie Maggie, as in “Hey, Faggie Maggie, how does a blonde like her eggs in the morning? Fertilized!” When I was 14 I bagged groceries at the A&P; at 15 I cleaned the cafeteria at the local ski resort. I know the cramps of overworked hands. 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. I know I am lucky to have escaped.

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. 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. It weighs the narrative down just as Maggie’s investigation of the central crime is accelerating.

This impulse is somewhat mystifying. Though Lord is missing from the start, the mystery-solving takes more than 100 pages to get chugging. Despite this, Still Lives is an effective thriller with a delectable final 100 pages. It reaches an addictive pitch that all books of this ilk aspire to. The more Hummel settles into the plot machinations the better the novel gets, as the hazy ideological questions and confusing passages fall away. If only the whole book hummed along in this mode.

This acceleration occurs because Maggie is finally allowed to truly desire something. She is no longer merely curious or scared or interested, she must figure out what happened. Once she accesses this, the entire demeanor of the book changes. Work is no longer an obligation or a nuisance, it’s an obstacle, as are the plans her friends try to make with her. Everything becomes heightened and more difficult for Maggie to navigate, and Hummel writes these tensions well.

Still Lives is an uneven book, but its highs are more than worth the lows along the way. 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. The missteps won’t be forgotten, but forgiveness is more than earned.


Bradley Babendir is a fiction writer and critic. He has written for the New Republic, The New Inquiry, WBUR’s The ARTery, and elsewhere.