Sign After the X_____ is a pleasure to see sitting on one's desk. An unimposing matte maroon paperback, its cover design is simple, elegant, and understated. It seems to promise a serious, although not necessarily coherent, excavation of something--we'll call it "X"--interesting. A collection of narratives, poems, drawings, quotations, lists, treatises, and essays, it attempts to inventory the appearances, history, and uses of X: Not just as a letter, but as a symbol, an illustration, a sound, and an integer. Using the conventions of a book without the serious intent of writing one, Sign After the X______ explores the extent to which a symbol has begun, in mythology, poetry, contemporary politics, and visual art, to mean just about anything.

Published by one of our region's boldest and most innovative artist-run presses, Vancouver-based Artspeak, this book has all the marks of another successful merger between the visual and the textual. Artspeak has a reputation for reinventing publishing so that every book is its own medium. This year's small dead woman/Last Seen featured a glossy photograph covering a miniature manila folder with the text binder-clipped to it. The design of Sign After the X______ chose to emphasize its philosophical foundation, but the legitimacy of this "academic-style" book appears to have evaded even its publisher: The back cover blurb calls it a "part philological treatise on the foundations of image and text"; the publicity materials call it "part philosophical." This strange substitution, intended or not, is unfortunately symptomatic of much of the rest of the book: the look of serious thought without the substance to back it up.

Marina Roy's true artistry lies in her command over the visual. She attempts a devastatingly beautiful project in this compendium of her artwork and writing: to investigate the connection between an image, its sound, and its meaning. It is in many ways a less successful continuation of her past exhibits at Artspeak, photos of scatological drawings on the inside of paperback literature. This book's smattering of drawings are chosen to illuminate the text (even if just a list of sounds) rather than as freestanding thoughts. There are whimsical figures (X-Men), maps in which X-cities are circled, sexual X-positions.

But the book's form, its strongest element, falls away to what becomes in many places a rather pedestrian, semiotic metatext. X becomes merely a centering device. Each chapter is named after some X; sometimes it's an essay, sometimes a narrative, a poem, or list. The subject at hand nearly always seems arbitrary or frivolous (the index puns on itself and lists the authors and works found in the latest edition of the Tridentine Index, the list of books censored by the Catholic Church), although much of the book is smart and interesting. The chapter called "X-rated" is an unprecedented, serious, 10-page history of sexuality. Pieces that seem relevant are those that illuminate some aspect of contemporary culture, not semiotics, and not X, whatever that is.

"Proper names" discusses X, Malcolm X, Xai-Xai, Xanthi, and Xerox, none of which is entirely necessary or unnecessary. But such a small collection only prompts the question, "What here has been omitted?" And that, to be sure, was partially intended, as Roy notes in her preface: "I must warn you that this book is far from complete... it is riddled with lacunae.... In writing this, I have constructed a limit to thought." This is, sadly, all too true.

Roy's prefatory excuses make her later attempts at philosophic thought all the more difficult to swallow, and especially when written in the voice of a vapid academic. Experimental texts are never as disenchanting as when they meaninglessly adopt the air of the academe at the cost of genuine thought and exploration. "This may seem arbitrary to some," Roy writes in one of the book's many self-conscious introductions (there is a foreword, preface, prologue, and introduction). "But when one realizes that X also stands in for all that lies beyond the threshold of what is knowable, a pattern begins to emerge. This book finds its meaning at the point of intersection between all X-related terms within the realm of written and unwritten law." As my friend aptly summarized, "I think [Roy] could be writing pretty much anything and it would sound the same." MEGAN PURN