Cat's Cradle wouldn't be Cat's Cradle without old Johnny boy here. John is our narrator and protagonist, and as such, he's fairly important to the novel. You know, just a little.
He starts the story off wanting to write a book titled The Day the World Ended. It would be about what "important Americans had done on the day when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan" (1.7). After gathering a bunch of data on Dr. Felix Hoenikker, John eventually drops the project.
But the memory of Felix Hoenikker comes back to haunt him all the same. On the island of San Lorenzo, John meets up with a host of insane and odd characters, including the three Hoenikker children. Each Hoenikker holds a piece of their father's true legacy: ice-nine. It's now up to John to prevent Hoenikker's substance from ushering the world into a devastating ice age.
Well, either that or try to learn to live in said devastating ice age. We're just saying the guy has options.
Yes, we know the Weezer song is titled "My Name is Jonas." But we love that song, so we're going to cheat just a little bit here.
When the novel opens, John asks, "Call me Jonah" (1.1). He suggests this name "because somebody or something has compelled me to be certain places at certain times, without fail" (1.2).
We're going to have to go Biblical for this one. The Book of Jonah in the Hebrew Bible tells the story of—you guessed it—Jonah. In it, God tells Jonah to preach to the wicked in Nineveh. "Eh," says Jonah. "You know, I think I'll pass." But God sends various obstacles to get Jonah back on track, including the famous large fish. (With friends like that …) As you probably guessed, in the end, Jonah heads off to Nineveh and saves the city with his preaching.
John's request to be called Jonah is basically an attempt to say that a force is guiding his journey. Sure, he runs into all kinds of obstacles and weird coincidences—but divine interference is bringing him to his ultimate fate in the novel. In fact, the novel provides plenty of instances of travelers being tossed about in the ocean (like Jonah) just to end up on San Lorenzo.
With that said: John is also a notorious liar, so he might be asking you to call him Jonah as a means to telling a joke or being ironic.
So, why John?
It's totally boring. (Sorry, all you Johns out there. We like it boring! You get to give the name your own flavor rather than being "That girl whose mom named her Blue Ivy.")
It's what those in the biz call an everyman name. That is, it's a name that doesn't really suggest any type of history or personality. He could be anybody, from any time, and from anywhere—assuming, of course, that you're a guy, probably white, and most likely American. And in Vonnegut's defense, the white male American was his intended audience.
One of the benchmark routines in the comedy game is called the double act. The double act consists of not one but, yep, two comedians. One of the comedians is called the funny man. This guy gives the joke its punch line usually because he's a tad dim-witted, odd, confused, or all-around weird. Then there's the straight man. The straight man "set[s] the joke up so the funny guy can deliver the punch line" and is portrayed with an air of seriousness (Source).
If you want to see the double act at its best, then look no further than Abbott & Costello's hilarious "Who's on First?" sketch. Abbot, the one with the mustache, plays the straight man, and he might just be the greatest straight man in the history of mankind ever. Costello, the guy in the bowler hat, is our funny guy.
Get to the Point, Shmoop!
Okay, okay, why did we bring all this up? It's because John is the straight man to just about every other character in Cat's Cradle. Sure, he gets a punch line or two here and there, but his main job is to get the other characters talking and let them deliver the comedic and thematic goods.
Flip to almost any random conversation in the novel, and you'll see John is barely talking. He mostly responds to what the other characters tell him, either about some past event or some other character, and these conversations all entail a joke or two, usually at the expense of someone other than John.
For example, chapter 43 starts with John giving a little information about H. Lowe Crosby (set up). The rest of the chapter consists of Crosby talking about the hook and dictators, letting his "barn-yard clownishness" come to bare for the audience (funny guy/ punch lines). All John does while Crosby talks is ask the occasional question to keep him going (straight man).
But even the straight man has to have a sense of humor, so he can set those jokes up. And John has it in spades. In fact, he calls himself a "notorious pervert in that respect" (89.6). With this sense of humor, he's able to recognize the zaniest in the people and world around him and bring it front and center into his narrative.
Of course, every comedian must take comedic license. John takes his license before the book even begins. In the novel's epigraph, he warns that "[n]othing in this book is true." (Check out "What's Up with the Epigraph?" for more about that.)
So, why does he say that?
The first kind is the reliable narrator. This narrator tells you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. This is the guy or gal you give your spare set of keys to and bring home to meet your mom.
But the second—oh, boy, the second. This is the guy or gal you refuse to lend money to, the one whose cryptic Facebook messages you hide, the one whose stories about backpacking around Thailand you don't quite buy. In other words, this is the unreliable narrator. This narrator's credibility is held in doubt for whatever reason—maybe because he's insane or wants to present himself as something he's not.
You might have guessed that John is the second.
What's interesting about John is that he's completely reliable in his unreliability. That is, he's lying to you, plain and simple. But he's completely honest about his lying. His goal is not to tell the truth like he was writing a history book. Instead, he's telling lies to get you to consider and explore artistic and philosophical truths, which are entirely different things than historical truths.
What are those philosophical truths? Well, we've got a whole list of them over at our "Themes" section. Feel free to check them out.John's Timeline