The story that has meant the most to me so far is Speaking of Courage. Speaking of Courage takes place after the war. In the story, Norman Bowker drives around a lake in his hometown, having conversations with people in his mind. He berates the town, cursing those around him for not caring about the war. At one point he states "The town did not know shit about shit, and did not care to know" (137). He feels that "there [is] so much to say" (141), but he has no one to say it to.
However, when Bowker finally gets the opportunity to tell someone about the war, he doesn't. In a way, it's not just that nobody wants to hear about the war. It's also that Bowker can't bring himself to talk about it. At the end of the story he claims that "There was nothing to say" (147).
This story means the most to me because it touches upon a habit of mine. I constantly have idealized conversations in my head. It's a toxic habit. When you imagine having a conversation, you're setting yourself up for disappointment. Whatever happens in the actual conversation, if you have it, is a let down. Nobody's going to respond to you the way you'd want them to.
In addition, when you have conversations in your head, you assume things about people and their character. Bowker makes assumptions about the people in his hometown, convincing himself that they don't want to know about the war. He assumes that nobody would listen to him, even if he did try to talk to them. He imagines how Sally Gustafson would take issue with the term "shit field" instead of listening, and how his father would focus on the medals he had won, instead of his remorse over letting Kiowa go.
The more you have these imaginary conversations, the less inclined you are to have conversations in real life. After all, what's the point? You've convinced yourself that you already know how it would play out. You get so caught up in your head, you start to lose touch with the world around you. This can be dangerous, especially if you're in a situation like Bowker, and a single conversation with someone willing to listen could save your life.
It's this shared habit that makes me feel most connected to Norman Bowker. Another thing that makes me feel strongly connected to Bowker is his situation with his parents. At one point, Bowker says "I'll tell you something, O'Brien. If I could have one wish, anything, I'd wish for my dad to write me a letter and say it's okay if I don't win any medals. That's all my old man talks about, nothing else. How he can't wait to see my goddamn medals" (34). He's in the middle of Vietnam, fighting for his life, and all he wants is for his parents not to be disappointed in him. He doesn't even want them to be proud of him for being a soldier, he just wants them not to be disappointed. This situation of having parents who value a child's accolades over the actual child themselves, and how frustrating that can be from the child's standpoint, is a situation I can empathize with.
A specific convention of narrative I wanted to discuss from the book is symbolism. It's important to keep in mind that this book is a work of fiction, and everything in it has been intentionally crafted. When we read, we have a tendency to trust the narrator. This is especially true in a genre such the war story, where we're expecting an autobiographical account of a soldier's experiences in war. This is very much not the case in The Things They Carried. There is a great deal of intentionally constructed symbolism throughout the book.
Kathleen, for example, doesn't exist. O'Brien doesn't have any children, and never has. He created Kathleen to represent the enormous gulf in understanding between all Vietnam veterans and their family members who didn't serve in the war. Mary Anne Bell is a symbol for all the soldiers in Vietnam who went in young and naive and slowly became corrupted. The man O'Brien killed could be a symbol for all the Vietnamese killed during the war.
Finally, a passage that really meant something to me is this passage from the story Notes:
"By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain." (152)
When I read that passage, it struck me. I like telling stories, but I've never really put much thought into why. This passage speaks to me. By telling stories, you take something that happened to you and you distance it from yourself. You can tell the truth because it's not true anymore, not for you. It's just a story happening to somebody else. It becomes very impersonal.
Another thing is tone. When you turn a memory into a story, you take control of it. You can tell it any way you want. When you experience something that makes you sad, you don't have to tell it as a sad story. You can make it a funny story. And when you tell it to someone else, and it makes them laugh, you feel better.
This connects to the story Spin from the novel. In Spin, O'Brien claims that "the war wasn't all terror and violence" (30). In this story, he's putting a "spin" on the war. He takes control of it, by telling it in a positive way.