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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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Chapter 16 Summary

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The sixteenth story in The Things They Carried is "Notes." It is a series of notes about the previous story in the collection, “Speaking of Courage.” The narrator, Tim O’Brien, explains that he got the idea for the story after receiving a letter from Norman Bowker. Three years after sending the letter, Bowker would hang himself in the gym of his local YMCA. In the letter, Bowker explained how he was struggling to find a purpose now that he had returned to America. He had taken on a variety of jobs and he had enrolled in school, but none of these pursuits seemed immediate and meaningful. He slept through the mornings, played pickup basketball in the afternoons, and drove around in the evenings. He wanted to talk about the war, but he could not find the words.

Bowker explains that he liked O’Brien’s memoir about the war, If I Die in the Combat Zone, and he suggests that O’Brien use Bowker’s experiences to write a story. O’Brien, who had been writing the novel Going After Cacciato at the time, did his best with the story. He wrote “Speaking of Courage” over a couple of weeks, and revised it afterward. However, he did not include what happened to Kiowa in the “shit field.” Consequently, he felt that the story had lost its power. The story did not fit in with his novel, so O’Brien ultimately chose not to include it. However, he did publish it in an anthology of short fiction.

Bowker read the story and wrote O’Brien again, complaining that it did not mention what had happened to Kiowa. After he found out that Bowker had killed himself, O’Brien returned to the story. He admits that he had always felt a sort of smugness over how easily he had returned to life in America after the war. However, he acknowledges that while writing stories may not be “therapeutic,” it has helped him to objectify the experience. He admits that sometimes as a writer he is able to remain truthful and other times he is able to add content to make sense of what happened. When he returns to the story, he felt that had to confront what had happened to Kiowa, and O’Brien’s own “complicity” in it. Writing ten years after Bowker’s death, O’Brien explains that he made Bowker the center of the story and he added Kiowa’s death to it. He explains that Bowker “did not freeze up or lose the Silver Star for valor. That part of the story is my own.”

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