Out of My Head

Out of My Head

by Didier Van Cauwelaert

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"Simply thrilling. Its surprising denouement works a retrospective magic."
- New York Times Book Review

"Van Cauwelaert has assembled his plot perfectly, like an intricate timepiece, and we are amazed by the precise ticking that sounds at every twist in the tale. The book reads like a close cousin of Philip K. Dick, the acknowledged master of


"Simply thrilling. Its surprising denouement works a retrospective magic."
- New York Times Book Review

"Van Cauwelaert has assembled his plot perfectly, like an intricate timepiece, and we are amazed by the precise ticking that sounds at every twist in the tale. The book reads like a close cousin of Philip K. Dick, the acknowledged master of doubting what's real."
- Olivier Delcroix

"A devilishly well-oiled plot, which grabs the reader with both hands, drags him along, and twists him around."
- Le Spectacle du Monde

Martin Harris returns home after a short absence to find that his wife doesn't know him, another man is living in his house under his name, and the neighbors think he's a raving lunatic. Worse, not a single person—family, colleague, or doctor—can vouch for him. Worse still, the impostor shares all of Martin's memories, experiences, and knowledge, down to the last detail. He is, in fact, a more convincing Martin than Martin himself. Is it a conspiracy? Amnesia? Is Martin the victim of an elaborate hoax, or of his own paranoid delusion?

In his high-powered new novel, Didier van Cauwelaert, the award-winning author of One-Way, explores the illusory nature of identity and the instability of the things we take for granted. Dispossessed of his job, his family, his name, and his very past, Martin Harris is an Everyman caught in an absurd and yet disturbingly convincing nightmare, one that seems to have no exit and that resists every explanation. Part moral fable, part Robert Ludlum-style thriller, Out of My Head is a fast-paced tale of one man's desperate attempt to reclaim his existence—even at the cost of his own life.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Van Cauwelaert's trademark absurdist-existential angst is evident again in this follow-up to his Prix Goncourt-winning debut, One-Way. American botanist Martin Harris is relieved to return home after a week-long absence, three days of which he spent in a coma in a Paris hospital following a car accident. What a surprise, then, to discover that his wife of 10 years doesn't recognize him and is now living with another man, a botanist named Martin Harris whose knowledge and memories are identical to the narrator's in every detail. When no one from his former life will vouch for him, Martin starts entertaining unlikely conspiracy theories (adultery, corporate espionage) that are just credible enough to add some real spice to the mystery of his predicament. Feistily questioning his most basic assumptions-Where is memory stored? How authentic are the stories we tell about ourselves? How much of what we cherish about life is based on nostalgia and repetition?-he quickly finds that he "had to stop existing in order to start living." What has been a spirited exploration of identity and memory abruptly turns into a somewhat flimsy thriller in its final pages, but Martin's mighty struggle with self-doubt, paranoia and the disorienting freedom of losing his place in the world makes the ride well worth it. Agent, Lucinda Carter. (Dec.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Delightful comic tale about a man who can't convince anyone he's who he says he is. Recovered from a taxi accident that plunged him into a coma for three days, Martin Harris returns to his wife Liz. Entering the apartment they're sharing in Paris, Harris encounters a man he has never seen who insists on being Martin Harris. Liz, his mate of ten years, also refuses to recognize the returning Martin, whose protestations become so intense the building super, who also doesn't recognize Martin, ushers him from the premises. Author van Cauwelaert (the Prix Goncourt winner One-Way, not reviewed) thus starts with a premise that could serve a Hitchcock thriller, a Twilight Zone episode, or a heavy-going exercise in Existentialism. But van Cauwelaert nimbly sidesteps cliche and pretense, coming up with a series of sometimes dazzling scenes on the theme of identity. He speeds the hapless Martin through witty, touching, trenchant encounters with the hospital, the police, the woman driving the cab, and, a high point, a psychiatrist who offers Martin and the reader challenging but never heavy-handed theories about the powers of memory. Growing desperate for the most basic validation, Martin sets a private eye to spying on Martin's neighbors for a shred of evidence that will prove he's the real Martin. After checking birth, work, and marriage records, the p.i. tells Martin: "You don't exist." Martin's hope now turns to the cab driver from the accident, Muriel Carderet, who comes to believe Martin is the genuine item. Indeed, as their relationship deepens, Martin wonders whether he might after all prefer being this new Martin. Then Carderet locates one of Martin's former co-workers, who says he can vouchfor Martin's identity. The co-worker does unlock the puzzle, but not in a way one may expect. The swift final scene-a breathtaking jete-should surprise even the most jaded fan of thrillers. A little gem.

Product Details

Other Press, LLC
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.33(w) x 8.19(h) x 0.55(d)

Read an Excerpt


A Novel

Other Press

Copyright © 2003 Éditions Albin Michel S.A.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-59051-085-2

Chapter One

I'VE JUST RUNG AT my apartment and a strange man answered. Taken aback, I stare at the intercom.

"Yes," the voice repeats.

"Sorry, my mistake."

The crackling stops. The buttons are very close together; I must have pressed the neighbor's instead. With my finger centered squarely on my name, I press the little black rectangle once more.

"Now what?" says the same voice, impatiently.

Probably a crossed wire. Or a workman who's there to finish the remodeling.

"Is this the fourth floor, left?"


"Is my wife there?"


I'm about to tell him that I'm Martin Harris, but the building door opens and a couple with twin cell phones spills out, listening to their messages. I walk across the foyer and straight into the wooden elevator, which shudders slowly up to the top floor.

The landing is dark. I feel around for the timer switch, then press my doorbell. The neighbor's door opens after a moment and a little old man passes one eye over the chain. I say hello. He answers, in a tone that's at once guilty and suspicious, that all the doorbells sound the same. I agree, explain that I don't have my keys, turn around as my door opens. A man wearing pajamas, backlit, gives me the once-over. Thewords stick in my throat.

"Are you the one who keeps ringing the intercom?"

I ask what he's doing there.

"What do you mean, what am I doing here?"

"In my house."

"Your house?"

The sincerity of his astonishment leaves me nonplused. As I begin making out the features of his face, I explain with forced calm that I am Mr. Harris. He jumps. Thoughts begin to crowd into my head, of the most pathetic and insecure kind. My wife is seeing another man, she moved him in here while I was in the hospital.


We've both called out at the same time. She appears at the door to the bathroom, in panties and a black blouse. I start making my way into the apartment, but he blocks my way. She asks what's going on. She asks him what's going on.

"Nothing," he says. "An error."

She looks at me. Not like a cheating wife caught red-handed but like a stranger you accost who turns away, wanting no part of you.

"You deal with it," she says to him.

And she disappears into the kitchen. I take a step, but the other man grabs me by the arm. I shout, "Liz! What's gotten into you!"

"You leave my wife alone!"

His wife? I stand there with my mouth hanging open, my momentum broken by his aplomb. He is more or less my age, thinner, with a better-pitched voice, a square-shaped head, disheveled blond hair, and he's wearing the Hermès pajamas that Liz bought me at Kennedy Airport. I knock his arm down with my fist.

"What the hell!" he shouts, pushing me back.

"Is there a problem, Mr. Harris?"

I turn around. The neighbor is still behind his door chain.

"No, everything's fine, Mr. Renaudat," the other man answers. "It's all under control."

I gape at each of them, incredulous.

"Are you sure?" the neighbor insists.

"Yes, yes. It's just a misunderstanding. I'm sorry I woke you up. We're not going to get the whole building involved, are we?" he segues in a lower voice, staring at me, as if trying to reason me into some kind of reconciliation. "Come on, come inside so we can talk this over ..."

I grab him by my pajamas, yank him out onto the landing.

"No, you get out of my house, and I mean now! We'll talk this over in front of witnesses!"

"Martin!" my wife cries out.

He frees himself with a backhanded slap. In the time it takes me to react, my door has slammed in my face. I spin toward the little old man, who jumps back, slams his own door shut, and gives the deadbolt two full turns. Swallowing back my stupor, I try to find the natural tone of voice one uses in such situations. "Hello, Mr. Renaudat, excuse me, I'm your new neighbor. I haven't had a chance to introduce myself yet." He screams at me to go away or he'll call the police.

I remain frozen in the silence of the landing, with no explanation for this absurdity. How can you prove what's obvious when everyone denies it, and you've got no proof to offer other than your own good faith? I love my wife, she loves me, we've never fought in front of people, I've only cheated on her once in ten years of marriage and even then it was just professional, a colleague at a botanists' convention, she never knew about it, we were looking forward to our new life in Paris-what's the meaning of this? I come home and suddenly find myself in some kind of Candid Camera situation. I look around the landing for mikes, a hidden lens, reflections behind the mirror ... But who would have staged such a prank, and why would Liz play along?

The timer on the hallway light runs out. I lean against the wall to catch my breath. My throat feels tight, my head is spinning, and in the pit of my stomach is the mix of anxiety and relief you feel when a bad premonition finally comes true. Since waking up I've been trying in vain to reach my wife on her cell phone. I've been missing for a week and she wasn't even worried, didn't report my disappearance, didn't go to the police, who would have given her the name of the hospital where I was recovering. And now this morning, she's pretending to be married to someone else.

Immobile in the shadows of the landing, I stare at my door, hoping it will open and Liz will come out laughing, introduce her accomplice, and throw her arms around my neck with a shout of April fool's. But it's the 30th of October, and she's never been one for practical jokes. Nor for having a lover. Or so I thought. In the span of two minutes, I've found myself thrown out of my own home, not sure of anything anymore.

And then the situation suddenly becomes clear and I break into a smile, realizing how stupid the whole thing is. She thought I'd left her flat, that I'd just run away with the blonde in the window seat who'd been flirting with me above the Atlantic. I figured Liz hadn't noticed, what with her two sleeping pills and cloth mask ... I thought she was acting strangely when we landed, but she always scowls at younger women. Leaving the airport, as I tried to cheer her up, she hissed under her breath, "Very discreet of you!" And when I bent down to pick up the belt of her raincoat, she slammed the taxi door on my hand.

"Liz, listen to me, it's not what you think! I was in a car accident, I was in a coma for three days, it's all right now, there are no lasting effects, but the hospital wanted to keep me under observation ... I've been trying to call you since I woke up, there's a problem with your cell ... Listen to me, open up! What's going on here? I'm exhausted, my hand hurts, I need a shower, and ... Liz! Open the door, goddammit!"

No answer. Utter silence in the apartment. Listen as I might, all I hear is the sound of the elevator behind me. I try to kick the door down.

"Cut it out! I'm in no shape for this! Open this door or I'll break it in! You hear me?"

A giant surges from the elevator and wraps his arms around me.

"Take it easy."

"Let me go!"

"Everything's fine, Mr. Renaudat, I've got him under control."

The sound of a deadbolt from the neighbor's. His door opens again and the little old man yelps, "What's the use of paying for an intercom and a super if you let just anybody come in?"

I shout that this is my building.

"I said take it easy!" the huge guy answers, crushing my ribs.

He thanks the neighbor for alerting him and asks me what I want with Mr. Harris.

"But I'm Mr. Harris!"

The vise of his biceps loosens, then immediately squeezes in again. With the tip of his chin, he rings my doorbell, then calls out, "Sorry to bother you, Mr. Harris, but is this person related to you?"

"Absolutely not!" answers the man behind the door. "I've never laid eyes on him before."

"Well?" the concierge barks at me as if this were proof I was lying.

"Well what? I've never seen him before either. I don't know him!"

"But I do. That's Mr. Harris, he lives here, and I'm the building superintendent. Okay? So you get the hell out of here this minute or I'm calling the cops."

I break free with a sharp jerk and grab him by his polo shirt.

"Go ahead! Call them! Do it now! This guy is an impostor pretending he's me and my wife is going along with it!"

Nothing stirs in his brutish face.

"Have you got any ID?"

I slip my hand into my jacket pocket out of habit, then let it fall. I explain that I was in an accident and lost my wallet.

"Don't let him fool you!" cries the neighbor. "He's just some junkie, you can see it on his face!"

I'm about to answer that I have the face of someone who just got out of the hospital, but I change my mind. They'll take me for an escaped mental patient. I turn back toward my door, call out in a supplicating voice, "Liz, I love you! Please, stop this charade ... Tell them who I am!"

I speak in English. She's from Quebec and we always communicated in French, back in Greenwich; it gave us a sense of privacy that I try to recreate here on the landing, in reverse. I swear to her that she's the only one in my life. Still no reply. I catch a darting glance between the super and the neighbor. It can't be-is everyone in on it? But this glance is less about connivance than insinuation. Like the wink two misogynists give each other in front of a woman they've classed as a slut: she hooked up with a guy without telling him she was married and now he's raising a stink because he's jealous, so she's making like she doesn't know him from Adam.

"Come on, pal," murmurs the concierge in a gentler voice. "You can see you're not welcome here."

I look back at him for a moment, then nod, overwhelmed by the glint of humanity that passed through his bovine eyes. As if he identified with me, as if he empathized with the misunderstanding and rejection I've unleashed. His hand pats my shoulder in a gesture of solidarity for the kind of pathetic slob who invents a life for himself at the bar after work.

He prods me toward the elevator. I don't resist.

"And don't let me catch you hanging around the neighborhood, buddy. You got it?" he says in the lobby, with a real gentleness. "Or I'll have to kick your ass. They don't like to be bothered around here."

I can feel his eyes on my back as I walk toward the glass entrance door. When it has shut behind me, I turn around. Through my transparent reflection, I see him going back into his office.

"Look out!" shouts a kid on rollerblades, brushing past me.

The noises of the street fade in around me: a garbage truck, a jackhammer, passers-by, car horns. Everything's normal, everything's as before. I look at myself in the glass doors and I'm the same. The same thickset, rumpled outline, stiff hair, and unremarkable face. It wouldn't take much to convince myself that nothing had happened. I've just arrived at my building, I ring at the door, Liz opens, and we rush into each other's arms. Where were you, I was going crazy with worry, what happened to you? Then I'll tell her about the accident, the coma, regaining consciousness, her cell phone not working; she'll make us some coffee and we'll head back to the hospital to settle my bill. The scene I've been playing over and over in my head since coming to. The one that was supposed to happen. My finger hesitates above my name on the black button. Then I turn and leave the street.

I walk like a robot among scurrying pedestrians and tourists, looking for a familiar face in spite of myself, a shopkeeper who might have seen me with Liz, any witness at all to hold onto. But there are only antiques dealers and clothing boutiques. I turn right, head to the drugstore they'd told me about last Thursday. I try to find the girl who bandaged my hand, describe her. She's on vacation. I leave, retrace my steps, walk by the window of the France Télécom outlet where Liz bought our cell phones. But they're prepaids and don't involve any particular interaction with the sales clerk-and in any case, she already had them by the time I came back from the drugstore to find her.

I go into the first café I see and collapse onto a seat. I don't feel good. My head is spinning, my thoughts are getting bogged down, and I'm so tired I can hardly stand. The medicine they gave me, the tetanus vaccine, the side effects of what I've been through ... I'm no longer myself. As if the fact of being denied like this, attacked in my very identity, were somehow contagious. "You'll see," the neurologist told me, "some memories might have been erased, or will take time to come back." But that's not it-everything is there, in its place. It's horrible not to feel any uncertainty and still be so short of convincing arguments. My memory is intact, but it's running in idle, without echo, with nothing to catch onto, dissociated.

With my elbows on the table and my head in my hands, I breathe in the smell of beer and cold ashtrays to get a grip on the present, chase away the vision that's haunting me. I felt like a stranger in the eyes of my own wife. And she looked sincere. Some painting contractors are laughing loudly at the bar, full of life, covered in stains and plaster bits. I quickly review the list of who I've spoken to since arriving on French soil, who could possibly confirm that I'm me. The cop at passport control, but I didn't really notice his face. The Korean taxi driver who brought us here, but I didn't keep the receipt. And then the woman who was in the accident with me, of course, but she doesn't know any more about me than what I told her, just like the staff at the hospital.

"What'll it be?"

I look at the waiter. No point asking if he recognizes me. We came to sit there for a moment with our luggage, unwrapping our new cell phones, while waiting for our appointment with the landlord. Then I realized that I'd left my computer at the airport. Liz stayed behind to wait for the keys and I hopped into a cab. After that came the accident, the coma, my reawakening.

"Sir? What can I get you?" the waiter insists.

I hesitate. I don't know what I want. I don't know what I drink.

"Something strong."

"A cognac? I've just gotten in a bottle of vintage I think you'll like."

In a cutting tone, I tell him that there are no vintages in cognac. His smile fades. It's nothing against him, but the very idea of lies inspires an uncontrollable rage in me. I can see in his eyes that I have a foreign accent, that he's the Frenchman and this is none of my business.

"A Coke," I say to wipe away the incident. "With rum."

"A Cuba Libre," he translates, tonelessly.

He turns on his heels.


Excerpted from OUT OF MY HEAD by DIDIER VAN CAUWELAERT Copyright © 2003 by Éditions Albin Michel S.A. . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Didier van Cauwelaert

Didier van Cauwelaert is the author of numerous bestselling books, including Poisson d'Amour, La Vie Interdite, and Rencontre Sous X (forthcoming in English from Other Press). He wrote a libretto that was featured in the recent off-Broadway musical, Amour. He lives in Paris.

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