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Postmodern Village
est. 1999
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The Lipid-Membrane Hypothesis of Chilling Injury and Jack London’s “Fang Meets Kanii”
by Christopher Orson Spencer

The lipid-membrane hypothesis of chilling injury, developed to fruition primarily in the 1970s, had been held by many nonscientists, on a more basic level, as a secret belief akin to old wives’ tales. The hypothesis postulates that tropical and subtropical beings (primarily fruit, but studies have also shown indicators of this effect at work in fruit flies) are damaged by cold temperatures at the most basic level: the lipids in their cellular membranes freeze (solidify or crystallize) at some critical temperature that varies with the ratio of saturated fats to unsaturated fats in the membrane (Clark; Skog).

While this sounds like the beginnings of either a diet or Tarzan Meets the Abominable Snowman, this hypothesis has found its way into mainstream literature. Afrikaan Cathy Bauerhoff’s Where Diamonds Are Born is a Caldebury award-winning children’s book retelling the adventures of Tonga, a native Tunisian who wins a trip to South Africa for a dream date with a rich diamond miner. Before she leaves, she fills her pockets with cut glass that she looks at often: she has never seen real diamonds before and does not want to be tricked, so she memorizes the appearance of glass. On her journey, a gust of wind sweeps her to Antarctica: there her cut glass crystallizes into diamonds. She realizes her independence is the real treasure and never returns home except to sell her diamonds, the product of chilling theory and magic, for food.

Perhaps one of the earliest and best-known appearances of this phenomenon is in Jack London’s “Fang Meets Kanii,” a short story written when he was twelve. Long held by London scholars as the first instance of three themes combined--the Arctic, the South Pacific, and dogs--”Fang Meets Kanii” is also a landmark tale of lipid-membrane chilling theory in action.

Kanii, a Pekinese dog, has been pampered by its owner, a sailor named John who specializes in the spice trade. Kanii has blown up to three times her natural weight and can barely walk on her stubby legs. After a sudden storm, her master and she are blown terribly off course and land in the Aleutians. At first her extreme obesity acts as a winter coat, protecting her from the impossibly cold Arctic air. John, a stringy man without an ounce of fat, dies in the first day. The ratio of unsaturated to saturated fat does not concern London, but only its end result. Kanii is left to fend for herself in this cold world.

Fang, a St. Bernard, lives with his master Hank in a one-bedroom wood cabin. Kanii finds the cabin by following the smell of blubber and smoke. Her torso leaving wide, flat tracks behind her, she trudges to the fire and passes out from exhaustion in front of it. The heat from the fire restores some of the tropics to her, ceasing the immediate threat to her well-being.

Fang has never seen a dog as tiny, yet gargantuan, as Kanii. After sniffing her behind and smelling the salty air of the sea trapped in her long hair, he understands immediately the problems she must face. He convinces Hank to take her in; unfortunately, Hank does not allow her into the cabin because there is not enough room for the bloated lap dog. He puts out the fire and wishes Kanii the best, promising her a biscuit in the morning.

That night, Kanii complains about her blood becoming molasses and she whimpers, detailing the solidification of her internal organs to the night.

As Fang’s blood would boil in Hawaii, so Kanii’s blood froze in the Arctic. The crystallization of her liquid essences created small sharp shards in her arteries, jagged edges of ice yearning to break from her vessels. She let another howl break from her throat, now clogging with frozen saliva, that pierced the icicle night with a shower of pain. She hacked a piteous cough, attempting to dislodge the ice cube in the middle of her esophagus formed by the night air: frost was forming on her fur and her natural orange color was blanketed by white snowy death.

Hank, exhausted by swinging axes at trees all day, is oblivious to her cries. Yet Fang hears all and is powerless to do anything. He knows she will be dead by morning.

And so she is. Fang digs her a shallow grave before Hank awakes and howls one last time for her memory. Hank awakes, complains, grunts, and drinks coffee as Fang sulks and hides his workboots.

Applying chilling theory to this story resurrects it from the useless biographical criticism of Jenkins and Maloney:

So here, it is clear that London is casting his own dog Rex as a sympathetic, helpless creature unable to control both his desires for the French poodle of Mrs. Mathers and also the torrential rains around Jack’s eleventh birthday. Unable to do anything, Rex simply sulks in his doghouse, perhaps a literal image of the perennial doghouse Jack was in for fistfighting with the immigrant children down the street (134).

Jenkins and Maloney have often been used by the post-colonialist critics to justify their readings of a xenophobic presence throughout London’s oeuvre. As Maxwell writes, “Of course the newcomer dies. The newcomer always dies in London’s works. It is because London despised people in general, but especially those different from himself” (94). Yet when we understand that Kanii must die because she is physically unable to survive, we realize London is not telling us that she deserves to die. It is the coldness of Hank that truly kills her. By using chilling theory, London gives us an scientific explanation thus removing doubt about his own interactions with non-Americans. Operating with the same non-arguments, many feminist scholars wonder why the one female present in all of London’s juvenilia must die: the answer is chilling theory, not a desire to kill all women.

Although “Fang Meets Kanii” is largely a short story dedicated to the tragic nature of love that every twelve-year-old boy believes they should be writing about in order to be taken seriously, it has strong elements of lipid-membrane chilling theory. That theory should remove the criticism of the marginalized that this is just another example of the <insert group here> being silenced. Instead, this story reflects the relationship of science and literature. Yet again, science learns a lesson from the beliefs of common man and attempts to validate the observations of literary man.

Works Consulted

Clark, Chris. “An ‘Inside Story’ on Chilling Injury.” Persimmon Profile. April 1995. 7.

Jenkins, Theodore and Patricia Maloney. “Red Rover, Red Rover, Send Jack London Right Over: Childhood Games, Dogs, and the Foundations of a Literary Lifetime.” Aleutian Review. March 1993, 124-38.

Lederman, I. E., Zauberman, G., Weksler, A., Rot, I. and Fuchs, Y. (1997) “Ethylene-forming capacity during cold storage and chilling injury development in 'Keitt' mango fruit.” Postharvest Biology and Technology 10:107-112.

London, Jack. “Fang Meets Kanii.” The Collected Juvenilia of Jack London. New York: Signet, 1974.

Maxwell, J. Simpson. Give Us Your White: Racism, Anti-Semitism, and Xenophobia Throughout American Literature 1880-1920. U of Kentucky P, 1989. 90-163.

Skog, Lisa J. “Chilling Injury of Horticultural Crops.” Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Factsheet. June 1998.