Trapped in the Narrative

I’ve geeked out about this on Facebook already, but seriously, how the heck have I not watched/listened to/consumed “Trapped in the Closet” before?!

I’ll tell you the genesis of this discovery. This weekend we held auditions for our third annual “Rocky Horror.” Then, because some people were away for Labor Day Weekend, we had more auditions on Tuesday. Our last auditioner had a resume that happened to include “Trapped in the Closet” on it.

The assistant director promptly had a heart attack.

He loooooves “Trapped in the Closet” and R. Kelly. He’s been to the sing-a-long screenings…more than once. He once recorded himself performing part of “Real Talk” as a dramatic monologue. This was big news.

Of course, once auditions were over, upon hearing that the stage manager and I had never seen this saga, we immediately watched the first chapter. And then I watched all of the rest. All. The. Rest.

I had no idea that it would be like that.

R. Kelly playing a hundred characters like Eddie Murphy! A soap opera that turns into an intricately plotted character study of an entire community! Deftly drawn characters that he has distinct voices for! A PIMP WITH A LISP! It is weird and ridiculous and brilliant, all at once.

And as I am a nerd*, I immediately wanted to analyze it.

No doubt there are some people out there writing their dissertations about “Trapped in the Closet” right now. I don’t have time to run to my nearest university and scream, “BUT CHUCK AND RUFUS! THE PACKAGE!” until they break down and accept me, so I’m going to talk about narrative technique here, giving Kelly the full benefit of the doubt when it comes to creative intent.

See the first chapter in the video at the bottom of the post. And um, duh: SPOILERS.

Basic Structure

Kelly builds his verses around rhyming couplets in something like iambic septameter which fit together into a repeating melody that figures into each chapter. There is a whole lot of repetition of sounds and even melodic lines, which provides a sense of movement and building within each chapter. The entire chapter, then, becomes essentially one “stanza” or section in the work as a whole, with each chapter repeating the melodic structure of the last. Of course, there are some melodic (hence structural) variations within individual chapters, and in some especially tense moments the orchestration becomes more insistent, loud, and varied, but the chapters are clearly echoes of each other.

Narrative Technique

Let’s get right down into what I find immediately fascinating about “Trapped in the Closet.” What is that? It’s the way that Kelly turns what seems to be a first-person limited narrative into a piece composed of omniscient community consciousness.

When we hear Chapter 1 by itself, it seems like a pretty typical R&B song. Some guy who refers to himself in the first person, who thus many people would identify with the artist, sings about waking up in an unfamiliar place. While trying to get his bearings, he hears a woman’s voice, but the woman who approaches him is not the one he expects. We don’t know his relationship with the woman he expected to see, but we do hear him call her “you,” so we’ve got another typical trope–the intimate song between first-person speaker and second-person audience, something like a love letter between the narrator and his intended listener.

The narrator (we don’t have a name for him; to us, he is the “I” of the story) tries to leave and the woman he is with stops him, saying her husband is coming. She asks him to hide. He tries to figure out another way to leave but when he is told that he is on the fifth floor and that there are no other stairs, he has a quick interior moment where we can hear what he is thinking (“Shit, think, shit, think, shit–okay put me in the closet”) before he does what his companion asked of him originally.

Solid ground, right? This guy is telling a story from his perspective. We can move from the inside of his head to the words he actually says, no problem.

Hubby comes home, is not suspicious, he and wifey start to get busy, and the narrator’s phone goes off. Crap. Hubby hears it and starts to get suspicious, begins to search the bedroom, narrator pulls out his faithful Beretta hand gun, and hubby opens the door.

Note the ending on a cliffhanger–the first twenty or so episodes make sure to do this.

So that’s set up pretty clear rules for this work, right? We’re in the head of this one guy during a pretty crazy day. We see from his perspective. We hear what he’s thinking about things. We know he’s talking to someone else, presumably his female partner. And for the next couple of chapters it continues like this. The husband confronts him and gets angry, then pulls out his phone to tell his own lover to return. The narrator thinks this person will be a woman and is shocked when the person who shows up is a man.

We know nothing that the narrator doesn’t know at this point. We have the same assumptions as him and are privy to the same information.

Here’s the crazy thing about “Trapped in the Closet”–this changes.

In a chapter or two we learn our narrator’s name: Sylvester. He goes home to his wife, Gwendolyn. Strangely, though, as much as we can assume that Gwen is the “you” the narrator mentioned in the first chapter, she has been transformed into a third-person party. The narrator is not the one who divulges her name–we find that out from her lover later on. Right now, she is just “she.” When we first meet her, it’s not “my wife,” and not “Gwendolyn.” It’s just “she,” like we of course know who this person is since we are the narrator and we’re married to her.

Things are beginning to change. The story is changing.

All of a sudden, we cut to James, the policeman who pulled the narrator over and who, it turns out, is his wife’s lover. Wait a second, how do we now know what’s going on with James? Is this assumption on the narrator’s part based on what happens later? Or is the scope of the narrative changing? James hurries back, concerned for Gwendolyn. He finds the car hastily parked with the lights on and hears what he thinks is crying from the bedroom. He doesn’t know that it is laughing–that the narrator and his wife have started to laugh about their various infidelities and crazy situation.

I want to stress this–we were seeing from the narrator’s perspective and now he literally tells us–STILL AS THE NARRATOR–what James is seeing “from his perspective.”

“Meanwhile we’re laughing and laughing and laughing, but from his perspective it sounds like crying.”

Whaaaat is happening here? Is our narrator now acknowledging the distance between him-as-character (who is laughing on the floor and doesn’t know this policeman is here) and him-as-narrator telling this story later? Well, that’s feasible. But I’m about to blow your mind.

We stay with James. Not just in terms of his part in the story of the narrator/Sylvester and Gwen, but after he leaves them.

AFTER HE LEAVES THEM TO GO HOME.

We hear his phone call with his wife. We see him come home. We hear his suspicion that she’s acting weird.

Wait…where is the narrator/Sylvester in this?

We’re not fully in the policeman’s head–he’s still called “the policeman” and the narrator is still “I”–but we know what he’s thinking when he’s suspicious, and there’s no way that the narrator is there.

And then maybe it can be explained away because of course the narrator and his brother-in-law show up at some point to break up a fight (because guess who else has a wife who’s cheating at the very time he’s cheating?), so maybe since he’s still relevant to the story this can all be seen as his story inside his head.

BUT THEN!

At some point that I don’t have to quantify because this isn’t an academic paper, the narrator and Sylvester split.

I’m not kidding.

Suddenly we’re hearing about “Sylvester this” and “Sylvester that,” then going back over to “James” and back to “Kathy” and “Chuck and Rufus” with no entrance by Sylvester afterwards to explain how he would know what’s going on. By Chapter 14 it’s Sylvester and Twan hanging out like they’re both characters of equal weight in this story.

I KNOW RIGHT?! WHAAAAT.

And yet we still have a narrator! This is the one that will blow your mind for real. See at the bottom of the post.

Chapter 21. We have a narrator, in front of the car, in a clean white suit, telling us that Sylvester decided to go home…to put on a suit. A different suit. A black suit. So we now have an embodied narrator who is very easily visually distinguishable from Sylvester. This narrator is there but not there. He literally fades in and out of the picture. He d0es not interact with any of the characters. He’s omniscient, and we just keep meeting new characters who turn out to be intimately connected with things. An older couple, neighbors to Sylvester and Gwen. A whole congregation. A pimp and his prostitutes.

There’s even a TV show presented as if we are actually watching the TV show–no narrative introduction when the clips air, just the beginning of on-screen credits and some background music when a clip is about to end.

The series has exploded into a fecund exploration of various narrative devices with no reverence for continuity…and the crazy thing is, we don’t mind it. Or at least, I don’t. It seems completely natural. It’s epic, really. It’s playful. It’s creative in the purest sense.

Honestly it’s Nabokovian in its use of narrator-who-is-and-yet-is-not-the-author-or-the-main-character.

And just as honestly, I could write a book about it. We don’t even know how all of this ends and I already have the material.

This is probably my longest post of all time, which goes to show you just how much of a nerd I am, but I do want to mention a couple of other things: the intertwining details are like something out of a JK Rowling novel. In one chapter, the policeman flicks ash from his cigarette. In another, Sylvester smells cigarette smoke in his house and thinks, huh, weird. In one chapter, the little person (of course named “Big Man”) is about to soil his pants. In another, Twan and Sylvester wonder what the heck the bad smell in the kitchen is. It’s subtle and it’s genius, and I could go on forever.

But I won’t.

Anyway, to end this: Watch “Trapped in the Closet.” Watch all of it. And whatever you think of R. Kelly, admit to me that he’s pretty damn brilliant.

Even if he was drunk on Hennesy the entire time he shot this video.

 

*Make that a HUGE nerd

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