Why does “Notes” in The Things They Carried discuss at length how Bowker’s story was embellished and changed?

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"Notes" acts as a companion piece to "Speaking of Courage," in which O'Brien explores how he came to write this prior story. It was after receiving a letter from Norman Bowker, who was struggling massively to reintegreate into the US, that O'Brien, at Bowker's request, tried to write "Speaking of Courage" in order to explore the position of soliders returning from Vietnam and trying--but often failing--to live a "normal" life. However, as O'Brien himself states, his first attempt was unsatisfying, as he has been forced to not include Kiowa's death in the "shit field" and the rain. He reflects in "Notes" that:

What the piece needed, and did not have, was the terrible killing power of that shit field.

It is only when Bowker kills himself that O'Brien is forced to confront this memory in his own life and to write the "full" version and include what happened with Kiowa in the shit field in honour of Norman. "Notes" ends, however, with the following proviso:

In the interests of truth, however, I want to make it clear that Norman Bowker was in no way responsible for what happened to Kiowa. Norman did not experience a failure of nerve that night. He did not freeze up or lose the Silver Star for valour. That part of the story is my own.

This highlights a constant theme of all of the stories in this collection. O'Brien means the reader to really wrestle with the relationship betwen fact and fiction, without supplying easy answers about what is real and what is not. Above all, he means the reader to be overcome by the power of the story rather than worrying about what is true and what is not. "Notes," therefore, explains the genesis and the development of one of the stories in this collection, and explains how O'Brien's first sanitised attempt to write "Speaking of Courage" was edited and developed after the death of his former comrade Bowker to try and more accurately capture the emptiness of the lives of returning soldiers as they came back to the US from Vietnam.

Read the study guide:
The Things They Carried

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