After the career-crowning success of Don DeLillo's colossal 1997 novel, Underworld, it was daunting to think what this influential and hugely inventive writer would come up with next. The progress of his fiction seemed to be one of dizzying, almost geometric expansion. His early works - such as Great Jones Street (1973) and Players (1977) - were terse, elliptical views of contemporary society, whose fractured diction and seductive lacunae spoke volumes without requiring volumes to be printed. With The Names (1982) and White Noise (1985), DeLillo's novels began to grow, blossoming into Libra (1988), a doorstopping study of Lee Harvey Oswald that had the heft of the Warren Commission report. Finally came Underworld, an 800-page masterwork that started out with a baseball game and went on to encompass nearly all of postwar American society. It was tempting to think that the reclusive author's next step might take him into the boundless literary territory occupied only by the likes of Proust and Tolstoy.
Defying any such expectations, DeLillo has instead published his briefest work to date, The Body Artist, a slim novella representing a significant departure. Set on an unspecified stretch of American coastline, it concerns Rey Robles, a burnt-out film director, and his new wife, a performance artist called Lauren Hartke, who have holed up in a capacious rented house to work on Rey's autobiography. Their quiet life is shattered when Rey inexplicably commits suicide at the home of his former wife. The grieving Lauren stays on in the house, which, she soon realises, she shares with a mysterious interloper - an unidentified, perhaps insane man who had been spying on the couple. Instead of calling the authorities, Lauren develops a tentative relationship with the stranger, using the experience to create a piece of performance art.
And that's it. To say The Body Artist is understated is, well, an understatement. DeLillo has never been less forthcoming. The book's two central events - Rey's death and Lauren's performance - are presented second-hand, in the form of newspaper reports. The "action" is confined occasionally to brilliant but mostly affectless descriptions of Lauren's interactions with the two men. At one point, DeLillo pictures Lauren standing in front of the house "tasting the breeze for latent implications"; it could be said that the reader is forced into a similar position regarding the text. We are afforded only the briefest glimpse of Lauren and Rey together, leaving their relationship largely a mystery. The reasons for Rey's suicide remain a subject for fruitless conjecture. The stranger, whimsically referred to by Lauren as Mr Tuttle, is pure cipher, a man without identity, personality or memorable features. "There was something elusive in his aspect, moment to moment, a thinness of physical address." Like Rey, he vanishes from the book without a trace. And Lauren's climactic performance is shot through with such enigmatic indirection that it could have been staged only in a place with a name like the Boston Center for the Arts.
At times, you wonder if DeLillo has set out to write a book about the limitations of narrative. His prose can be cripplingly self- conscious - for example, when a toaster's lever "sprang or sprung" upwards, or Mr Tuttle "ate breakfast, or didn't". DeLillo's work has always been keenly aware of the absurdity inherent in any act of description - take, for instance, Underworld's astonishing sequence in which the various parts of a shoe are described in such a way that the reader understands he has never really thought about shoes or, for that matter, names. And then there is the famous father-son argument in White Noise over whether or not it is actually raining outside. But there was something both funny and expansive about these passages. Throughout his previous work, DeLillo revelled in the preposterous nature of the authorial project. In The Body Artist, however, he conveys none of the joy inherent in that absurdity, just its tongue-tied melancholy and impenetrable silence.
This novel also brings into focus another problematic area in DeLillo's fiction - character. While few can deny the author's unrivalled ability to recreate the cadences and conundrums of contemporary speech, a feeling develops after reading a lot of his work that the characters are actually speaking a language of their own, an argot that manages to be both brilliant and undifferentiated. Characters as various as Lee Harvey Oswald, J Edgar Hoover and Mao II's Salinger stand-in, Bill Gray, end up sounding suspiciously alike. Mr Tuttle, with his lack of personality and truncated, babbling speeches - "A thing of the most. Days yes years" - is the purest representation yet of this monochromatic tendency. His nonsense doesn't manage even to be gnomic. He is all surface, and not brilliant surface at that.
Rey and Lauren, meanwhile, may initially appear to be full-blooded, as they potter around the kitchen making breakfast, but both are soon embarked on courses of self-obliteration - Rey with a gun in his mouth; Lauren with the skin-exfoliant, hair bleach and crash diet that turn her into the featureless puppet (the body artist) at the book's end. DeLillo's grasp on character has always been tenuous. Here, it seems to have slipped through his hands altogether.
This is a shame, because DeLillo's genius has always been to invest the more naval-gazing aspects of the postmodern sensibility with humour, danger and surprise. There is nothing that Jacques Derrida or Alain Robbe-Grillet could tell him about the death of the author or the opacity of the text, although DeLillo could teach both of them a great deal about how to write well with these boundaries in mind.
With The Body Artist, however, DeLillo has abandoned the provocative sizzle and black humour that sugared his nihilism in previous novels, creating instead a small, gloomy and forgettable book. The hope is that this is an aberration from his remarkable body of work, rather than a sombre, dead-end culmination of it.
Stephen Amidon is a novelist living in Massachusetts. His most recent novel is The New City (Doubleday, £15.99)