By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others.
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
In his letter, Bowker told O’Brien that he had read his first book,
While he was working on a new novel entitled
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
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.
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.
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—