By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others.
See Important Quotations Explained
O’Brien says that “Speaking of Courage” was written at the request of Norman Bowker who, three years after the story was written, hanged himself in the YMCA. O’Brien says that in 1975, right before Saigon finally collapsed, he received a seventeen-page, handwritten letter from Bowker saying that he couldn’t find a meaningful use for his life after the war. He worked several short-lived jobs and lived with his parents. At one point he enrolled in junior college, but he eventually dropped out.
In his letter, Bowker told O’Brien that he had read his first book, If I Die in a Combat Zone, and that the book had brought back a great deal of memories. Bowker then suggested that O’Brien write a story about someone who feels that Vietnam robbed him of his will to live—he said he would write it himself but he couldn’t find the words. O’Brien explains that when he received Bowker’s letter he thought about how easily he transitioned from Vietnam to graduate school at Harvard University. He thought that without writing, he himself might have been paralyzed.
While he was working on a new novel entitled Going After Cacciato, O’Brien thought of Bowker’s suggestion and began a chapter titled “Speaking of Courage.” But, following Bowker’s request, he did not use Bowker’s name. He substituted his own hometown scenery for Bowker’s and he omitted the story of the sewage field and the rain and Kiowa’s death in favor of his own protagonist’s story. The writing was easy, and he published the piece as a separate short story. Later, O’Brien realized that the postwar piece had no place in Going After Cacciato, a war novel, and that in order to be successful, the story would have to stand on its own in truth, no matter how much the prospect frightened O’Brien. When the story was anthologized a year later, O’Brien sent a copy to Bowker, who was upset about the absence of Kiowa. Eight months later Bowker hanged himself.
A decade later, O’Brien has revised the story and has come to terms with it—he says the central incident, about the night on the Song Tra Bong and the death of Kiowa, has been restored. But he contends that he does not want to imply that Bowker did not have a lapse of courage that was responsible for the death of Kiowa.
Although “Notes” is the second of three consecutive stories connected to Kiowa’s death, it is more about O’Brien’s own search for authenticity in storytelling than about the death itself. “Notes” is the only one of the three written in first person, which makes it the story closest to O’Brien’s perspective. O’Brien focuses on the guilt that he feels not over Kiowa’s death but over his own attempts to represent it inauthentically. His explanation that most of his writing comes from the “simple need to talk” illustrates that his writing is his chosen form of relief from mental anguish. As such, his success in dealing with his mental anguish is directly related to his success as a storyteller. Still, relief is not so easily earned. While O’Brien knows that telling Bowker’s story will make easier his own grief-negotiation process, he struggles to find the appropriate venue to do so.
Read more about Norman Bowker after he returned home.
While “Speaking of Courage” introduces the postwar Norman Bowker and illustrates how the guilt he feels in regard to Kiowa’s death follows him home to Iowa, “Notes” presents O’Brien’s perspective on Bowker, enriched by the information that Bowker killed himself fewer than ten years after the war. In many ways, this story is a complement to “Speaking of Courage” as well as a sequel. The information provided in Bowker’s letter allows us to understand how seriously he was affected by the war. Bowker’s actions in “Speaking of Courage”—driving repeatedly around the lake, trying to strike up a conversation with the cashier at the A&W, wading in the lake with his clothes on—may seem incomprehensible, but the added information we gain from O’Brien’s telling of the story illuminates why he acts as he does. Bowker’s listlessness in the previous story is accounted for in the latter—his inability to find a method to communicate his feelings results in his suicide.
By working on this story and finessing it in order to make it accurately convey his feelings about Vietnam and specifically about Norman Bowker and Kiowa, O’Brien makes peace with his memories of them. He writes in order to remember in a way that is not painful. Therefore, though he originally leaves Kiowa’s death out of “Speaking of Courage,” he puts it back in because it is the essential part of understanding Bowker’s despair and listlessness.
Read more about storytelling as a motif.
As in previous stories, O’Brien makes the boundaries between truth and fiction vague in order to suggest that telling a true war story is not contingent on any verifiable facts. For example, the chronology of the fictional O’Brien’s writing career is quite similar to the real O’Brien’s—If I Die in a Combat Zone and Going After Cacciato are names of novels that O’Brien the author actually published, and the mention of these real works raises the stakes for both the fictional O’Brien and for us. Reading “Speaking of Courage” takes on a new significance for us, for example, if a man named Norman Bowker actually killed himself. Also, Bowker’s statement to O’Brien that he recognized himself among the characters of If I Die in a Combat Zone forges a closer link between O’Brien, who stands outside his works, and his characters, who inhabit them.
Read more about the difference between author and narrator in The Things They Carried.